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Column: Breaking down barriers to voting for people with disabilities


Column: Breaking down barriers to voting for people with disabilities

Sep 08, 2023 | 4:05 am ET
By Dessa Cosma Monique Stanton
Column: Breaking down barriers to voting for people with disabilities
Daniella Heminghaus/for States Newsroom

There is much excitement that comes with an Election Day in Michigan. 

It’s an opportunity for all of us – no matter our background or political affiliation – to decide as an electorate on the important issues of the day and on who will represent us at the various levels of government. And it’s a day when we can fully engage in our democracy and exercise a right that many in our country had to fight hard to receive. 

And yet, Election Day access barriers still exist for far too many people with disabilities in our state and country today.

During the Nov. 8, 2022, general election, Detroit Disability Power partnered with The Carter Center to conduct an audit of 261 polling locations across 15 jurisdictions in Metro Detroit to determine whether they were accessible as required by law. 

The audit results were nothing short of dismal and troubling. Despite there being between 1.5 to 2 million residents in Michigan with a disability and approximately 129,000 residents with disabilities in Detroit alone, only 16% of the 261 polling locations audited were fully accessible.

The audit revealed issues with parking, pathways into buildings, building entrances, Voter Assist Terminals (VATs) and accessible voting booths. Specific examples of issues observed by the audit volunteers included severely cracked sidewalks, uneven concrete, street-only parking with limited or no accessible parking spots, a lack of good signage to accessible entrances, accessible ramps blocked by cars, entrances with stairs and no ramps, VATs with error codes, VATs without paper or headphones/controllers, VATs that were unplugged, VATs that were placed in a way that did not ensure secrecy and a lack of fully set up or readily available accessible voting booths. 

The good news is that 67 of the polling locations that were audited only had one access barrier or impediment, which means that correcting that singular issue for each of the 67 locations would raise the percentage of fully accessible voting locations in metro Detroit from 16% to 42%. And, most of the issues observed at the polling locations in all 15 jurisdictions could be easily corrected at little to no cost through better training, commitment and intentionality. 

Here at Detroit Disability Power and the Michigan League for Public Policy we have long advocated for making voting easy, secure and accessible for all eligible voters, including voters with disabilities. 

The voting rights of people with disabilities are just as important as the rights of any other voter and there are laws in place that protect those rights. And yet, while the protections are clearly defined in the Voting Rights Act, Americans with Disabilities Act and Help America Vote Act, these laws are only effective if there is also proper education and accountability. 

Going forward, it is our hope that the audit report can be used as a roadmap by local clerks when training their election inspectors and preparing and setting up for Election Day. Voting access should also be kept top of mind when jurisdictions select alternative polling locations, as permitted under a new Michigan law, so that current issues are not replicated. Increased coordination between election management jurisdictions and the state is also recommended.

While last year’s audit focused on polling locations in and around the Motor City, we know that this isn’t just a metro Detroit issue. A lack of accessibility at the polls is an issue that exists across our state and country, with national data from 2016 showing that 60% of polling locations in the U.S. had at least one access barrier or impediment. 

Recognizing the tremendous value of the data that was gathered during the 2022 audit to help push for real, lasting change, Detroit Disability Power is now working with partners across the nation to conduct similar audits in their states and is also planning to conduct another audit in Michigan in 2024.  

Because the bottom line is this: People with disabilities are a sizable part of our electorate and they cannot and should not be left behind. Breaking down barriers to voting would have a huge impact on their ability to fully engage in our democracy and, ultimately, on how well they are represented by our government at the local, state and federal level. 

With Disability Voting Rights Week coming up next week, there are opportunities for all of us to work together to protect the voting rights of the millions of people in our country with a disability or disabilities. Working together, we can ensure that all Americans’ voices are heard at the polls.

Here are some opportunities for engagement with Detroit Disability Power during Disability Voting Rights Week and beyond:

  • On Monday, Sept. 11, Detroit Disability Power will be co-facilitating a workshop with The Carter Center about poll site access audits and what was learned from the 2022 audit. Learn more and register here.
  • On Wednesday, Sept. 13, Detroit Disability Power Executive Director Dessa Cosma will be speaking on a panel organized by Disability Rights Florida titled “Disabled in Politics, Elections & Leadership.” Learn more and reserve a spot here.
  • On Monday, Sept. 25, Detroit Disability Power will be hosting a “train the trainer” workshop on how to replicate poll site audits. Learn more and RSVP here.