As 2020 presidential candidates court voters in early states, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey has introduced legislation to make polling places more accessible to voters across the country, addressing a concern among many voters with disabilities.
“The right to vote is only as good as the right to have access to voting,” the Pennsylvania Democrat said. “We’ve got to make sure that every single American, when they go to vote, actually can vote without impediment."
Only 17 percent of polling places assessed in a 2017 study from the Government and Account Office were found to be free of any impediments.
“That’s a problem,” Casey said. “We’ve got about 48 million people in the country with a disability who are eligible to vote. Every single one of those 48 million is entitled not just to the right to vote, but the right to vote without impediments and have accessible polling places.”
Casey’s legislation, called the Accessible Voting Act of 2020, would amend a 2002 law to increase accessibility for older voters, voters with disabilities, Native Americans and voters with limited proficiency in English. Its provision include providing broader access to absentee voting. and creating a new office to oversee accessibility within the Election Assistance Commission.
Casey said recent changes to Pennsylvania election law that create no-excuse absentee voting and allows people to register to vote closer to Election Day are steps in the right direction. Even so, he said, “There’s still going to be a huge number of Pennsylvanians who will vote on election day and have to vote from a polling place.”
“I just want to make sure that every single one of those voters, especially those with disabilities, have access to not just a polling place, but access that will allow them to get into the polling place,” he said.
Allegheny County’s 1,323 polling places appear to be more accessible than those surveyed in the GAO report. A spokesperson for the county said every polling place currently complies with ADA standards.
But activists say there’s still work to be done.
“It’s really not great,” said Alisa Grishman, disability activist and founder of Access Mob Pittsburgh. She said that while a polling place may technically be accessible, “any accessibility they have is often the bare minimum.”
Grishman recalled that one of her polling places had a metal ramp, but it “wasn’t a very good one." And once she got inside, there wasn’t room for a wheelchair to comfortably move through the vestibule.
Churches and religious institutions are often used as polling places, but are not required to be accessible under federal law. At least 28 percent of polling places in Allegheny County are located in such buildings, and Grishman wants to see a shift away from using churches on Election Day.
“This is not comfortable for a lot of people,” Grishman said. “Religious institutions are not required to be accessible, and so when they [are made accessible], it’s kind of a last-second thing for the election.”
“There are very few magic buildings,” said Paul O’Hanlon, an activist and retired lawyer specializing in election law and disability issues. “Once you get into it, you develop some appreciation for how big of a challenge it is to find 1,300 places twice a year to rent for one day that meet all these standards. I don’t underestimate the challenge.”
Still, he said that while Allegheny County has made great strides when it comes to providimg accessible polling places, there were still logistical challenges.
“I don’t want this to sound insulting, but one of the essential elements for accessibility is a healthy dose of common sense,” O’Hanlon said. “The problem is that on Election Day, often what you find is that there is an accessible entrance, and somebody doesn’t have the key to that door. And there’s an accessible elevator that’s turned off that day. There’s all kinds of random things that come up that need to be solved.” It’s unclear what the 2020 primary will bring for voters with disabilities. The layout at polling places may be different with the use of new voting machines with paper ballots, and all registered voters can apply for a mail-in ballot to vote from home. The Pennsylvania primary is April 28.