Access For All? Voters With Disabilities Face Barriers On Election Day
Arthur Campbell is a disability rights advocate; he was part of the movement that paved the way for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. But he says there’s still a lot of work to be done, like with Kentucky’s polling places.
For the past few years, Campbell has used a separate door to get into his voting precinct in Louisville. That complies with the ADA, which says if a main door can’t be made accessible, a separate door can be used. But in the past, there’s been a violation: despite federal regulation requiring that accessible doors be kept unlocked during voting hours, Campbell’s accessible door has been locked, and only opened if he pushes a buzzer for assistance.
“When you get up to the door, not only do you have to press the button because it’s closed at the time, [I had] to wait for someone to come all the way around,” Campbell said, adding that at times he’d wait upwards of 15 minutes.
There are around 3,700 polling stations across Kentucky, and by law each one is required to be accessible to people with all disabilities, including physical, intellectual or developmental. For instance, there have to be headphones for audio ballots, specialized switches for people with difficulty using their hands, a chair for people facing long voting lines and assistance from poll workers or a trusted person, if requested.
This first became law when Congress passed the ADA in 1990. In 2002, the Help America Vote Act put even more stringent standards in place and gave states money to enforce those standards. Each of Kentucky's 120 county election offices certifies that every polling precinct is technically accessible. But some experts and people with disabilities say those efforts fall short, and end up keeping people with disabilities away from the polls.
David Allgood, the director of advocacy at Louisville-based Center for Accessible Living, said although a polling place might provide an accessible entrance, people with disabilities can potentially face many other issues.
“Perhaps there might be some problems with the height of a voting table, or someone who will say that you can’t have someone with you to assist you. Some poll workers are not as educated as they should be,” Allgood said. “It’s a never-ending battle, but we will continue to fight.”
Beth Metzger works for the Kentucky Protection and Advocacy Office, which educates, investigates and tries to resolve problems that people with disabilities face on Election Day. She said every year, her office gets calls regarding issues for people with disabilities at the polls.
“One of the biggest issues is that the accessible equipment isn’t set up on time,” Metzger said. “There have been times where people go at 2 p.m., and it’s not set up. Seriously?”
Some, like Arthur Campbell, find the accessible entrance is locked. Others have encountered issues with entrances that may be accessible in theory, but haven’t kept up with the changes in wheelchair technology. That’s what happened in 2012 to Jackie Koch, who uses a wheelchair and has cerebral palsy.
“I had to go down a sidewalk, make a turn and there was some dirt on one side before I could get to the ramp,” Koch said.
Koch added that her wheelchair is wide, and she worried about accidentally tipping her chair over in the dirt.
“So [once] you got through the initial door, which is very narrow, you had two more doors to go through, which doesn’t make it very easy for someone that uses a wheelchair,” she said.
In addition to difficulty using the accessible entrance, Koch had trouble leaving, too. She had used Louisville’s TARC3 Paratransit Service to get to the polling place. But she faced a quandary when she tried to call the service to pick her up: cell phones aren’t allowed in polling precincts, and it was raining outside. Poll workers told her she couldn’t be on the phone, even when Koch tried to explain.
“They don’t want you to have your cell phone,” Koch said, adding that making that phone call outside would have been a challenge for her. “Plus, it’s challenging to go out the doors, make the call and then have to come all the way back in.”
That experience prompted Koch to vote by absentee ballot, event though she would prefer to vote in person. According to the Department of Justice, voting in person gives people with disabilities the chance to interact with neighbors and people handing out information on candidates outside polling precincts.
“Simply put, voting in person at a local polling place is the quintessential American voting experience,” the Department of Justice writes in an ADA checklist for voting places.
Beth Metzger with the state said the number of complaints her office receives is likely not representative of the barriers people with disabilities face, either because people don’t know their rights or don’t want to attract attention.
Arthur Campbell said he knows why people with disabilities might not want to complain.
“They won’t say a word. They’ve been programmed to be passive and nice. You have to make up for your disability. If you don’t, people won’t like you,” Campbell said. “The other reason: we are human. We crave to be accepted and looked upon as normal.”
But sometimes, the complaints create change.
That’s what happened in the case of 26-year-old Lexington resident Amelia Mullins, who has severe autism and gave permission for her mother, Wendy Wheeler-Mullins, to speak on her behalf.
“When [Amelia] gets anxious, she tends to recite TV shows and movies, verbatim, kind of a self-calming mechanism,” Wheeler-Mullins said. “I think that’s what made the people look at us like, this person doesn’t have a brain in her head, she shouldn’t be voting.”
The two had a particularly bad voting experience in 2015, where they faced what Wheeler-Mullins called “judgmental, skeptical” looks from poll workers.
“I just got the impression that they thought like, I was trying to buy her vote or something,” Wheeler-Mullins said. “They didn’t stop her from voting, but their behavior would have been a discouragement to someone from voting.”
Wheeler-Mullins said she complained and was told poll workers would be spoken with and receive more training.
And after frustration about being directed to the locked, accessible door, Arthur Campbell complained, too. Metzger worked with the Jefferson County Election Office to address his concerns.
“I was told, ‘well, you know, if a main entrance can’t be made accessible, then it is OK to have a second entrance,' said Campbell. "And I said, ‘technically yes.’"
Campbell will find out on Tuesday if the accessible door is unlocked and if his complaint prompted change. Allgood with the Center for Accessible Living said all these barriers add up and can discourage people with disabilities from voting. But voting, he said, is one of the most basic things a citizen can do.
“A lot of times people with disabilities don't have a lot of disposable income, nor can we contribute to campaigns like some lobbyists. But we have one of the most powerful tools around, we can hire-fire individuals,” Allgood said. “And if we're a cohesive group, we can be an incredibly powerful voting block.”
Know Your Rights:
- Anyone with a disability should be given the option to vote independently and privately on Election Day.
- All voters should be given every type of option to vote, which can include a paper ballot or by machine.
- Every polling place must have a machine that is accessible for everyone, regardless of disability.
- Poll workers must provide assistance in voting if asked.
- Poll workers must speak directly to the voter, even if that person brings an assistant to help them vote.
- Voters using an audio ballot must be given more time to vote.
- There must be signs indicating where the accessible door is located.
- There must be accessible parking that can fit a van with a wheelchair lift.
- The accessible machine should be set up before the polls open.
- The Protection and Advocacy voter hotline (1-800-372-2988) will be open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST on Election Day