Easier Access at the Polls
The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) became effective on January 1, 2006. It requires every precinct in the United States to have at least one accessible voting machine or system in place. As a result, persons with disabilities should now, at long last, be afforded the same opportunities for participation, including privacy and independence, available to other voters.
A Checkered Past.
Prior to the enactment of the HAVA, the standards for voting accessibility in the U. S. varied greatly. While the Federal Election Commission acts as a clearinghouse for information and advice, all elections -- even those for national office -- are administered primarily on a local level. Because each of the 50 states has implemented its own election laws and policies, the number and specificity of accessibility standards for polling places have differed widely. For example, some areas have used accessibility as a specific criterion when they have selected polling places, others have not. Likewise, the accommodations provided to voters with disabilities have ranged from the use of absentee ballots, reassignments to a more accessible polling place, curbside voting, or early voting.
Prior attempts to give voters more uniform accessibility rights included the Voter Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act (VAEHA) in 1984 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. Despite the existence of this national legislation, however, over half of the polling places in the 2000 U. S. presidential election still had one or more impediments to accessible voting, according to a comprehensive study of the General Accounting Office conducted the following year. The most common impediment involved barriers either along the route from the parking area to the polling place or at its entrance.
Historically, election officials have blamed inaccessibility on limitations in funding and inventory. Funding constraints have hindered the purchase of newer and more accessible voting equipment. Officials have also complained that the number of accessible buildings in their communities was inadequate. Many polling places have been schools and churches owned by private entities allegedly beyond officials' control.
While the scope of the ADA includes voting activities and places of public accommodation, its terms do not strictly require all polling places to be accessible. Instead, the ADA has permitted election officials to provide voting services at alternative, accessible locations outside the citizen's immediate neighborhood. In addition, the ADA has not required officials to take actions that would impose "undue" financial and administrative burdens or threaten or destroy the significance of an historic property.
A Brighter Future?
The HAVA has now bolstered the rights of voters with disabilities. It has authorized the Secretary of Health and Human Services to appropriate sums for making all non-compliant polling places more accessible. These areas include the paths of travel to such buildings, their entrances and exits, and the voting areas within the facilities. Funds have also been allocated for outreach programs within the disability community and for training election officials and poll workers on how best to promote the access and participation of voters with disabilities.
The Election Assistance Commission has released an advisory opinion (#2005-004) that explains accessibility standards under the HAVA. Under these guidelines, voting systems should "afford a disabled voter the ability to perform the same functions (e.g., receiving and reading the ballot, making selections, reviewing selections, changing selections, and casting the final ballot) as are afforded to a non-disabled voter." While the voting experiences of disabled and non-disabled voters need not be identical, election officials "must to the extent reasonably and technologically possible afford a disabled voter the same ability to submit his or her own ballot, in a private and independent manner, as is afforded a non-disabled voter." The goal is to create a voting environment that is convenient and private using systems that are reliably barrier-free.
Implementing these provisions may prove challenging. As in so many other contexts, disabled voters themselves will likely continue to be their best spokespersons, watchdogs and advocates. To learn more about your rights under the HAVA, please consider contacting the Election Assistance Commission directly at 866-747-1471; www.eac.gov.
If election officials violate accessibility laws, the U. S. Attorney General or the person affected by the violation may bring an action for relief in the appropriate Federal District Court. Complaints under election laws may also be filed with the U. S. Department of Justice:
Voting Section, Civil Rights Division
U. S. Department of Justice
Washington, DC 20035-6128