The Americans with Disabilities Act and Other Federal Laws Protecting the Rights of Voters with Disabilities
PROVIDING ACCESSIBLE POLLING PLACES
In communities large and small, people cast their ballots in a variety of facilities that temporarily serve as polling places, such as libraries, schools, and fire stations, or churches, stores, and other private buildings. The ADA requires that public entities ensure that people with disabilities can access and use their voting facilities. The ADA’s regulations and the ADA Standards for Accessible Design set out what makes a facility accessible and should be used to determine the level of accessibility at any facility being considered for use as a polling place. The Justice Department’s ADA Checklist for Polling Places | PDF provides guidance to election officials for determining whether a polling place already has the basic accessibility features needed by most voters with disabilities or can be made accessible using temporary solutions.
An additional Justice Department publication, Solutions for Five Common ADA Access Problems at Polling Places | PDF, illustrates suggested temporary solutions for several common problems found at polling places. For example, if parking is provided at a polling place but there are no accessible parking spaces, election administrators can create temporary accessible parking by using traffic cones and portable signs to mark off the accessible spaces and access aisles.
The Department of Justice has expanded the scope of the Election Day monitoring conducted by Civil Rights Division staff to include assessments of the physical accessibility of polling places. For the 2012 general election, the Department's Election Day monitors conducted accessibility surveys of approximately 240 polling places in 28 jurisdictions throughout the country.
In some circumstances, when a public entity is unable to identify or create an accessible polling place for a particular voting precinct or ward, election administrators may instead use an alternative method of voting at the polling place. While absentee balloting can be offered to voters with disabilities, it cannot take the place of in-person voting for those who prefer to vote at the polls on Election Day. Any alternative method of voting must offer voters with disabilities an equally effective opportunity to cast their votes in person. For example, the only suitable polling site in a precinct might be an inaccessible building. In this rare circumstance, election administrators may provide “curbside voting” to allow persons with disabilities to vote outside the polling place or in their cars. In order to be effective, however, the curbside voting system must include: (1) signage informing voters of the possibility of voting curbside, the location of the curbside voting, and how a voter is supposed to notify the official that she is waiting curbside; (2) a location that allows the curbside voter to obtain information from candidates and others campaigning outside the polling place; (3) a method for the voter with a disability to announce her arrival at the curbside (a temporary doorbell or buzzer system would be sufficient, but not a telephone system requiring the use of a cell phone or a call ahead notification); (4) a prompt response from election officials to acknowledge their awareness of the voter; (5) timely delivery of the same information that is provided to voters inside the polling place; and (6) a portable voting system that is accessible and allows the voter to cast her ballot privately and independently.
Curbside voting is permissible only under these limited circumstances. Under the ADA, jurisdictions must select polling sites that are or can be made accessible, so that voters with disabilities can participate in elections on the same terms and with the same level of privacy as other voters.
In February 2014, the Department of Justice and Blair County, Pennsylvania, entered into a Settlement Agreement under the ADA concerning the accessibility of the County's polling places. The County agreed that by the 2014 general election, all of its polling places would be accessible on Election Day to voters with mobility and vision impairments. The County agreed to relocate some polling places that were not accessible and to provide temporary measures at others such as portable ramps and doorbells to make sure that they are accessible on Election Day.