On Election Day last year, the Government Accountability Office sent investigators to 720 polling places around the country to see if people in wheelchairs, or who were blind deaf or had other disabilities, could easily cast a ballot.
A Los Angeles polling station in 2008.
The results were mixed. There was some barriers, from the parking lot to the voting booth, in more than two-thirds of the polling places. But it turns out this was a significant improvement over what GAO investigators had found when it did a similar survey in 2000.
The findings prompted us to call Jim Dickson, an activist who's taught a lot of people about the problem of polling places that often exclude people with various disabilities. Dickson, with the American Association of People with Disabilities, knows a lot about this because of his own advocacy, and because he's got personal experience. He's a blind man and, for years, he had to rely on others to help him fill out a ballot.
"Once when I was voting, my wife marking my ballot, she said to me, 'I know you love me. Now I know you trust me because you think I'm marking this ballot for that idiot,' " he recalls. "She says that she marked it the way I wanted. I love my wife. My wife has strong political beliefs. Am I absolutely sure she marked my ballot the way I wanted it? No."
So Dickson is pleased about the way access has improved at polling places. Now, he votes on a touch-screen voting machine with voice commands. "We attain privacy," he says. "People who want the voting machine to talk to them, listen to it through earphones." He notes that this is an innovation not just for blind voters, but for people with severe learning disabilities, or for people who simply can't read. Today, he says, "over 95 percent of the polling places in this country have this system. In 2000, it was less than one percent."
In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act. It required each polling place to have an accessible voting system. And it provided federal money for states to make the changes.
It's no surprise that better access led to higher voter turnout. That's the conclusion of a study by two Rutgers professors, Douglas Kruse and Lisa Schur. Their study, earlier this year, concluded that record numbers of people with disabilities voted in 2008. Voter turnout was high overall in that historic election. But Kruse and Schur say 3.8 million more people with disabilities voted in the 2008 presidential election, compared to the 2000 election, and their study attributes the increase to the Help America Vote Act.
The GAO has done a series of investigations to study accessibility issues. And while its reports document great improvements, they also show there's room to do much more. The new GAO report finds that only 27 percent of polling places had no barriers for people with disabilities. Still, that was a good sign. In 2000, the GAO found only 16 percent of polling places had no barriers.
The biggest change was the addition of voting machines that can read a ballot, like the ones Jim Dickson uses now.
There are still problems, mostly for people who use wheelchairs. More than two-thirds of polling places had some barrier--from a lack of handicapped parking to doors too narrow for a wheelchair to get through.
The GAO recommended that the Department of Justice take a more active role in monitoring polling places. The report notes that it's important to get this right. Because as the population ages, more and more people will have difficulty walking and will need accommodations when they vote.