Many people with disabilities have heard the phrase, “Well, it’s just one step.” Or accessible entries aren’t labeled and are hard to find, prompting a hunt outside of a building. While those situations can be an everyday, annoying occurrence, encountering access problems when going to vote is a serious issue.
Federal and state laws require that all polling places be accessible and usable by elderly voters or voters with disabilities. “Voting is one of our nation’s most fundamental rights and a hallmark of our democracy. Yet for too long, many people with disabilities have been excluded from this core aspect of citizenship,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. People with intellectual or mental health disabilities have been prevented from voting because of prejudicial assumptions about their capabilities. People who use wheelchairs or other mobility aids, such as walkers, have been unable to enter the polling place to cast their ballot because there was no ramp. People who are blind or have low vision could not cast their vote because the ballot was completely inaccessible to them.”
“Important federal civil rights laws were enacted to combat such forms of discrimination and protect the fundamental right to vote for all Americans.” The Department of Justice offers guidance to states, local jurisdictions, election officials, poll workers, and voters on how the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal laws help ensure fairness in the voting process for people with disabilities. Go to https://www.ada.gov/ada_voting/ada_voting_ta.htm
According to the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office, minimum requirements for accessibility include:
- At least one set of doors must have a minimum width of 32 inches if the doors must be used to enter or leave the polling place.
- Any curb adjacent to the main entrance to a polling place must have curb cuts or temporary ramps. Where the main entrance is not the accessible entrance, any curb adjacent to the accessible entrance must also have curb cuts or temporary ramps.
- Where the main entrance is not the accessible entrance, a sign shall be posted at the main entrance giving directions to the accessible entrance.
- At least one set of stairs must have a temporary handrail and ramp if stairs must be used to enter or leave the polling place.
- No barrier in the polling place may impede the path of persons with disabilities to the voting booth.
- At least one parking space for persons with disabilities, which may be temporarily so designated by the municipality for the day of the election, must be available near the accessible entrance.
- The doorway, handrails, ramps, and handicapped parking must conform to the standards specified in the state building code for accessibility by persons with disabilities.
When voting takes place in a building where other uses are going on, such as a school, place of worship or community center, access issues can pop up during the day. It’s not unheard of to have a door temporarily obstructed with an object, a delivery vehicle blocking the curb cut or other issues. Let the head election judge in the precinct know immediately about these problems.
If a polling place has physical problems that cannot be quickly rectified, contact local election officials. Cities, counties and townships choose polling place locations and are responsible for polling place accessibility. Contact an election office, or city or township clerk to report access problems.
A local official can only choose polling places that meet these standards unless no available place within a precinct is accessible or can be made accessible. Some communities move polling places to adjacent precincts to find accessible locations.
City and township clerks are to visit polling locations periodically to check that polling locations are accessible. The Office of the Secretary of State’s Polling Place Accessibility Diagnostic Tool gives instructions on how polling place inspections should be performed. Le Learn more at https://www.sos.state.mn.us/elections-voting/election-day-voting/polling-place-accessibility/