Election officials have made progress but still have a long ways to go.
Following the 2012 election, the federally funded Research Alliance for for Accessible Voting conducted a national poll testing what the turnout rate had been among people with significant physical and cognitive disabilities. The group concluded that disabled people (as self-identified during the polling) had voted at a rate about 6 percent less than non-disabled people. Among voters with a self-reported “cognitive impairment,” turnout was almost 18 percent lower – only 45 percent during the hotly contested presidential year, as compared to 62.5 percent of non-disabled citizens. People who acknowledged “difficulty dressing or bathing” or “going outside alone” were some 16 percent less likely to vote.
In Wisconsin, the overall “disability gap” measured across all disabilities was a couple points higher: 8.2 percent.
What’s stopping these people from going to the polls? Could the polls themselves be partly to blame?
Every two years, the state Government Accountability Board inspects hundreds of polling locations all across the Badger State for handicapped accessibility. And every two years, the GAB finds obstacles and violations. The last round of results, released a couple weeks ago, was no exception.
According to our review of all 58 inspections conducted in Milwaukee on April 7, 2015:
60 percent of polling places (35) had issues with signage. Many lacked the proper signs to indicate “van-accessible” parking or handicapped-accessible doors.
30 percent (17) failed in some way to offer a handicapped-accessible entrance. In a few cases, the “handicapped-accessible” door was found to be locked.
Almost all of the polling sites had some form of handicapped parking. But nine lacked the proper “curb cut” needed for a wheelchair or scooter to move from the parking lot to a sidewalk or entrance.
About 38 percent of locations fumbled the process of setting up their “Automark” voting machine(s), which serve as the city’s handicapped-accessible voting booths. Inspectors found several not working, not turned on, or wedged into a corner on election day. Others were positioned in such a way that users would not be able to vote in private.
“I’m disappointed to see that because we’ve done a lot of election worker training around that issue [of setting up accessible voting booths],” says Milwaukee Election Commissioner Neil Albrecht.
The city’s audit results have improved over the years, according to GAB spokesman Reid Magney, although the above issues remain. Wrangling all 193 of Milwaukee’s polling places can be a challenge as “these facilities are not the property of the Election Commission,” says Albrecht, so meeting standards can mean a lot of pestering maintenance workers prior to election day and designing new routes through old buildings. Almost all of the polling stations inspected by the GAB passed the half-inch rule, which puts a half-inch limit on any cracks or bumps. At a couple locations, buckling sidewalks and potholes violated the guideline.
If all else falls, disabled voters may call the “curbside voting” number posted outside a polling location and request that a ballot be brought outside to them.
But meeting federal standards means more than accomplishing “the architectural part of accessibility,” according to Kit Kerschensteiner, managing attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsin. Each eligible voter, disabled or not, retains the right to cast a private vote, whether seated at an Automark machine or standing in front of a booth. Caregivers, including employees at group homes, sometimes forget this simple fact. “Some people say, ‘Oh, you’re disabled. You don’t vote,'” she says. “But unless you have that right specifically taken away from you by a court order, you can.”