Voting poses extra challenges for people with disabilities

On Election Day, as many as one in four voters may need help getting to the polling place, reading their ballots or filling them out. Advocates say inaccessibility at polling places can keep people with disabilities from voting altogether.
The voter turnout rate for people with disabilities is 6 percent lower than the general population, according to a 2016 study. In Missouri, the disability gap is even worse, at 10 percent lower voting rates.

That difference translated to an estimated 2.2 million fewer eligible votes cast in the 2016 general election nationwide. Elections officials say they are trying to close that gap and remove barriers to voting.

For the past few weeks, teams of election workers have been visiting local hospitals and nursing homes to get the votes of people who are sick or otherwise unable to make it to the polls Tuesday. People with disabilities are also eligible for the permanent absentee ballot list. Missouri and Illinois offer curbside voting if it is difficult for voters to get into their polling places.

Be in the know before you head to the polls.

“The goal is, we want your vote. We’ll do everything we can to get your vote,” said Steven Capizzi, director of the St. Louis City Board of Election Commissioners.

The estimated 450,000 adults with disabilities in the St. Louis region should be able to vote independently and privately in the polling place assigned to them on Election Day if they choose, advocates say.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires equal access to public services but does not specifically address voting. Other federal guidelines require at least one accessible voting system at every polling place.

The efforts are working in eight states, including Illinois, where people with disabilities vote at higher rates than people without disabilities.

But in older cities like St. Louis, it’s hard to come up with enough buildings that meet modern standards for accessibility, Capizzi said. Five of the city’s 113 polling places are inaccessible to people in wheelchairs: Berean Seventh Day Adventist Church at Page and Union boulevards, New Cote Brilliante Church of God near the Delmar Loop, Our Lady of the Holy Cross in the Baden neighborhood, St. Roch School just north of Forest Park and Watson Terrace Christian Church near Lindenwood Park.
During the Aug. 7 primary election, a man who uses a wheelchair waited for a break in the rain to vote at St. Roch, where a bipartisan team of poll workers helped him vote outside because the school’s gymnasium is down a flight of stairs.

The man, who asked not to be identified, said he was frustrated to be forced to vote outside and he wouldn’t have voted if it had rained all day.

It is likely that other polling places have barriers to people with disabilities such as the Carpenters Union hall on Hampton Avenue, where a person using a wheelchair would have to travel down a steep driveway and over speed bumps to get into the building.

As many as 60 percent of polling places nationwide have potential impediments such as steep ramps or lack of signage, according to a 2017 Government Accountability Office study.

Voters with disabilities have also voiced concerns about poll workers who aren’t trained in turning on audio features, changing the print size or adjusting the height of the voting machine, according to a recent survey of 30 participants of Paraquad, a local support organization.

“Generally speaking in the last few years the actual physical access of a polling place hasn’t been the issue, it’s more of the training of the polling workers for any type of accommodations,” said Kimberly Lackey, Paraquad’s director of public policy and advocacy. “There is a lot of hesitation and sometimes confusion from poll workers on what they can do.”

Capizzi said poll workers are trained before every election about accommodating people with disabilities, but the assisstive technology on the voting machines is 20 years old and needs to be updated.

Curbside voting can be problematic because voters have to alert poll workers that they need assistance. And when poll workers assist voters with their ballots, privacy can be lost.

“I have had to have folks read a ballot to me and fill it out because I have low vision and I’m just shouting out the way to vote,” Lackey said.

Roving election workers on Tuesday will visit every polling place by 6 a.m. and again throughout the day to check on problems with equipment or accessibility, Capizzi said.

“We want the voting experience for all voters to be the same,” he said.