When Darla Wilkerson went to absentee vote in person for the upcoming election, she noticed a large sign on the floor in the doorway reminding everyone to socially distance and wear their masks.
But the sign was difficult for voters with disabilities, like limited vision, to maneuver around, impeding the accessibility of the polling site. It wasn’t the first time she’s witnessed barriers to voting: On a different election day years ago, there was an uneven lip in the pavement that could prevent people using wheelchairs from entering.
“Many times people forget that folks with disabilities also have a voice,” said Wilkerson, who self-identifies as a person with a disability after a brain injury, and is the executive director for Disability: IN Greater Kansas City. “We need to make these situations as accessible as possible for all people.”
But how accessible the roughly 420 polling places across the Kansas City metro will be to people with disabilities will vary on Election Day. From the physical challenges of voting to the attitudes that people hold about those with disabilities, common obstacles include inaccessible parking lots and accessible voting machines that aren’t set up properly.
Voting accessibility for people with disabilities affects turnout: During the 2016 election, voter participation for people with disabilities in Kansas and Missouri was about 10% less than among people without disabilities.
Now, there is a growing awareness of the accessibility issues that people with disabilities face while voting. Some have taken their complaints to Twitter with #cripthevote, mentioning how long lines, bad weather while curbside voting and lines going up ramps instead of stairs can impede voters with disabilities. Local Kansas City business The Whole Person is also trying to raise awareness of the need for policies that increase accessibility, while providing a safe place for anyone to vote before or on Election Day.
“People accept it because they know it’s either this or nothing, but we want to make sure that we are continually pushing that polling places be accessible for everybody,” said Karen Gridly, consumer benefits coordinator at The Whole Person.
Physical challenges to voting
Polling places are supposed to follow the Americans with Disabilities Act Checklist for Polling Places, but this often isn’t the case. During the 2016 election, the U.S. Government Accountability Office sampled 178 polling places nationwide and found that 60 percent had an obstacle to people with disabilities outside or inside the voting area.
Of the nearly 420 polling sites in Kansas City, more than half are at religious institutions, which are exempt from following the ADA. Private clubs, including some country clubs, are also exempt. Twelve polling places are at privately owned businesses that don’t receive federal funding, which are covered by Title III of ADA. These public accommodations only need to make buildings accessible if it is “easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense.”
Most of the remaining 145 polling places are at publicly funded schools or facilities, like government buildings or community centers. While public entities have to follow Title II of ADA when building a new building or making renovations, they’re only required to make their programs accessible, not necessarily their locations.
“You can move the program around or do other things that are short of making every building accessible. That doesn’t help when you want to use one as a voting place,” said Marilyn Golden, a policy analyst at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund who has a disability.
Publicly funded facilities also have the potential to be out of date if local officials deem upgrading an older building too high of a financial burden. Golden notes that there is a high standard that has to be met to prove the existence of an undue financial burden.
Some of the most cited physical barriers by GAO in its study were steep ramps or curb cuts; entrance door thresholds that were too high; poor parking, pathway, or ramp surfaces; and not having signs to indicate accessible paths from parking to the voting area.
Wilkerson said the heaviness of an entry door can also be an issue.
“All election boards will say that (a polling location) is accessible to the public because the person with the disability can contact the polling location and request that the election judges come out with a ballot,” Gridly said.
But curbside voting doesn’t offer voters with disabilities the same experience as voters who are able to cast their vote inside a polling site. It also comes with the time and difficulty of contacting the polling location to arrange it.
“A person without a disability can go into a polling location and pull the little curtain behind them, and have that privacy and have assurance that nobody really knows who they voted for except themselves,” Gridly said.
Inside the polling place
If a voter with a disability is able to make it inside of a polling place, they can still face accessibility issues. The GAO found that in the 2016 election, 65% of polling places had accessible voting machines that weren’t turned on, didn’t have headphones available, weren’t set up to accommodate wheelchair users, or provided less privacy than voters that were using a standard voting station.
Many polling places are not equipped to offer translation services for people who use sign language.
“Most places now will have at least one voting machine that is accessible to people who are blind or have low vision, but there are times when that’s not in use, and it’s not always required to be in use. So again, you have that privacy issue,” Gridly said.
One of the biggest barriers that people with disabilities may have to face is one that isn’t visible — the attitudes and beliefs of poll workers toward those with disabilities.
“If you don’t have any experience in working with people with disabilities, there is either a stigma or assumptions that comes with that,” Wilkerson said. “When you physically can see that someone has a disability and they enter the polling place location, people can make assumptions that maybe they don’t have the cognitive or physical ability.”
Shawn Kieffer, Republican director of the Kansas City Board of Election Commissioners, said that poll workers are trained on how to use accessible voting machines, but not every election. He says that because election judges only use the accessible voting machine at their polling place every two to four years, they usually call the election board for help if someone needs to use it.
“It’s something that we work on all of the time,” Kieffer said. “Still, no matter how hard we work, I know we get complaints. We do make it a priority to be as helpful as possible.”
According to Kieffer, there is no specific training or manual for poll workers to work with people who have disabilities.
“In training, we tell them to be very sensitive and as helpful as possible,” he said.
Some people with disabilities never make it to the polls — Missouri is one of 31 states that removes people from voter rolls who are deemed to have a mental incapacity. Voters can also be removed from voter rolls if they miss two consecutive presidential elections and are deemed inactive.
Voting that’s accessible for everyone
Mail-in voting comes with its own unique set of challenges. Because of the pandemic, Missouri expanded its voting options to include mail-in voting. Information on the different voting options and how to request a mail-in or absentee ballot is located on the Secretary of State’s website. Wilkerson said navigating websites to access information on mail-in voting can be a huge obstacle for people who are blind and using screen readers.
Voters with disabilities can experience trouble requesting their ballots, or getting their ballot envelope notarized, according to Gridly. She said many people with disabilities, along with their caretakers, don’t realize that they actually don’t need to notarize their ballot envelopes.
Voters in Missouri who are incapacitated or confined due to illness or physical disability are able to request an absentee ballot. Voters who are permanently disabled do not have a notary requirement.
The Whole Person opened up as a satellite absentee voting site for Jackson County. It also helps people apply for an absentee or mail in ballot and provides free notary services for ballot envelopes.
For the last five years, The Whole Person has served as a centralized polling site for Kansas City, meaning that people with other polling places assigned to them are able to vote there. They offer a building for people to vote in that makes use of universal design, which means that it is made to be equally usable and convenient for all people.
Some of the building’s features include completely accessible parking lot grading, automatic sliding doors at the entry, contrasting colors and floor textures that give an intuitive way for people to navigate through the building, and an elevator that can accommodate multiple wheelchair users.
The Whole Person is also scheduling round-trip rides for voters who may need help reaching their polling place on Election Day.
Gridly hopes that The Whole Person is a nonpartisan place where people who might not be as engaged in the political process can feel comfortable coming to vote.
However, The Whole Person is just one location.
“We would like to see more of them accessible,” Golden said. “We want polling places and the organizations that are helping them, like the Secretary of State, to be fully schooled in what accommodations they should make to make sure people with disabilities can vote.”
Being a satellite absentee location has also helped The Whole Person spread its message of accessibility for people with disabilities to the public.
“It comes back to that advocacy piece,” Gridly said.“We need continued advocacy with legislators — that funding is important for election boards and the status quo can be improved.”
Brittany Callan is the health and environment reporter at The Beacon and a Report for America corps member. You can reach Brittany at firstname.lastname@example.org. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.
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