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Improving Election Accessibility for Disabled Voters, Spotlight: National Polling Access Audit Coalition

by | May 2, 2024 | Blog

Despite federal laws that require polling places to be accessible, voters with disabilities continue to experience barriers on Election Day. In 2016, the Government Accountability Office found that 60 percent of polling places had at least one problem that made them inaccessible.

The National Polling Access Audit Coalition (NPAAC), a group of state, local and national organizations, has worked together to create comprehensive resources and workshops to support polling place accessibility audits.

We sat down with organizers in the coalition to learn more about polling place accessibility barriers, what access audits look like, and how they are an important component of advocating for accessible elections. Check out the questions and answers that came from those conversations below:

What are some of the common barriers that disabled voters experience at polling places?

There are a wide range of barriers we see at polling locations. Some of them include:

  • Severely cracked sidewalks or uneven concrete
  • Street-only parking with limited or no accessible parking spots
  • Lack of signage for accessible entrances
  • Entrances with stairs and no ramp for access
  • Blocked access ramps
  • Accessible voting systems with error codes or that are unplugged
  • Accessible voting systems without paper, headphones, and controllers
  • Lack of privacy for voters using the accessible voting systems or for voters hand-marking a paper ballot at a wheelchair-height voting booth

These are a lot of the physical barriers we see, but there are other barriers disabled voters experience while trying to exercise their right to vote. For example, poll workers sometimes do not know how to appropriately assist disabled voters or how to operate accessible equipment. People with disabilities, especially people with intellectual disabilities, have also reported poll workers questioning their ability to vote or poll workers talking to their support person, and not to them.

There are several federal laws that require polling places to be accessible and to have at least one accessible voting machine. How do those laws fall short? Why does this continue to be an issue?

Laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, Help America Vote Act, and the Federal Voting Rights Act outline minimum requirements for accessibility. While we are grateful for these protections, the implementation and enforcement of these statutes varies state-to-state, or even precinct to precinct. Additionally, these statutes can be challenged in court. One such example is Shelby v. Holder, a case taken up by the Supreme Court in 2013. Their ruling weakened the Voting Rights Act and consequently, and as a result, nearly 100 laws restricting voting rights have been passed across the country. 

It’s imperative that we protect voters’ rights through advocacy and organizing. Conducting access audits is a first step in holding election officials accountable for protecting disabled voters’ rights.

How does conducting polling place accessibility audits help address the problem of barriers on election day?
Data is powerful. Conducting accessibility audits allow us to pinpoint exactly what the barriers are and in what jurisdictions. We can then take that data to engage with clerks and other election officials during early voting, on Election Day and after Election Day. For example, based on trends we see in access barriers, we can make recommendations to improve poll worker training. In rare instances, we are able to help remedy the access barrier in real-time by informing the chairperson. However, that may not be allowed depending on the jurisdiction’s rules and procedures.
What exactly goes into conducting polling place audits? What do organizers have to do leading up to audit day and after the audits have been conducted?

The steps of organizing audits include the following:

  • Setting goals
  • Seeking authorization to audit
  • Recruiting volunteers
  • Training volunteers on the questionnaire, conduct, audit day processes, etc.
  • Actually conducting the audits on audit day
  • Post-audit review of the responses and conducting follow-up
  • Data analysis
  • Publishing results and recommendations
  • Engaging with election officials, advocates, media, etc. to draw attention to findings

If you want to learn more about the details of each of these steps, check out our toolkit for comprehensive instructions.

How can organizations and individuals get involved in this work?

We know planning accessibility audits can seem daunting, but we have created a toolkit with all of the information and resources you need to conduct accessibility audits. Additionally, we are hosting workshops where we will teach organizations about the process from beginning to end. Mark the following dates on the calendar:

Can’t make it to any of these workshops? No worries-we’ve got you covered with past recordings.

What do you think are the most valuable pieces of information included in the toolkit?

It’s challenging to pick one or two valuable components to the toolkit, but the information regarding how to obtain authorization to audit and the data analysis template are incredibly important- and are likely new processes for most groups. Many organizations do not know how to seek authorization to audit, especially considering that the process varies drastically between jurisdictions. We have included many resources to aid organizations with this.

Small organizations often do not have a team to devote to data analysis. Our template allows organizations to easily plug in their data (as long as they use our questionnaire since the formulas are written to align with it) and have it automatically generate summaries of the responses.

What if our organization is already conducting polling place audits? Is there anything in the toolkit for people already engaged in this kind of work?
Yes! Many organizations already conduct polling place audits, and each uses their own methods, questions, and templates for planning and conducting the audit. Our questionnaire might use different questions–are there some questions that you can incorporate into your existing audit? Our audit planning document can help you think through planning your next audit. Maybe you’re looking for a new way to analyze data. Our data template could be a model for your organization’s data analysis.

You don’t have to conduct your audit in the same exact way–in fact, due to differences in state laws, you might have to follow different rules and procedures. Take a look at our toolkit and you can incorporate the processes and information that work for your organization.

Another benefit to using the toolkit is that it can help us build momentum for our movement. The more organizations around the country that conduct high quality audits, the more results and data we will see publicized, and this will lead to more election officials and leaders taking action to make our elections accessible.

Conducting polling place accessibility audits seems like a pretty big lift! What piece of advice would you give to organizers engaging in this work for the first time?
Take your time and plan ahead! At first look, planning and conducting an audit seems like an intimidating process with many, many steps. But these steps take place over a series of weeks, even months, and they can be broken down into smaller tasks. Start with our audit preparedness reflections. This will give you the opportunity to plan an audit that works for the size, capacity, and budget of your organization. It will help you plan ahead and think through the steps. Planning the audit, gaining authorization, recruiting volunteers, and conducting volunteer training all happen in the weeks and months before the audit. Then comes your audit day (or days). In the weeks after the audit, you’ll analyze the data that your observers collected, summarize the data, and then share your results with the people who can improve voting access.
Who are you hoping the toolkit reaches and what do you hope the toolkit accomplishes?
We hope that this toolkit reaches people who are passionate about improving the accessibility of our elections and polling places. This includes nonprofits working on voting rights and accessibility, nonpartisan disability voting coalitions, and allies who understand the importance of accessible polling places. We hope that this toolkit provides inspiration, a roadmap, and all of the tools that you need to plan and conduct a successful polling place accessibility audit. Whether you’re part of a large organization or a small group, you can use the toolkit to plan an audit that works for the size and scope of your organization, coalition, or group. If you believe in protecting voting rights, disability access at the polls must be part of your organizing efforts!
Now imagine – the toolkit has done exactly what you hoped! What does the world look like?
In this world, people with disabilities have full access to polling places and can easily vote privately and independently using the voting method that works for them. Voters with disabilities are able to easily engage with every part of our electoral system, from voting, to running for office, and ultimately to having an equal say in our government and its policy decisions. As a result, things work well for members of our community! Disabled people have more accessible, affordable housing, better public transit, living wage jobs, equitable healthcare access and quality education. Decisions are made with us, not just for us.