DRW staff visit election officials across Washington

Andrea Kelso
DRW Intern

The 2010 general election is approaching—and early voting access for people with disabilities is critical. 

Recently, Disability Rights Washington (DRW) has been working to promote both voting rights and voting access. 

DRW has been doing voter outreach to educate people with disabilities about their rights and how to exercise them. DRW also surveyed and evaluated local voting access in counties around the state prior to the primary election, and will continue doing so before November’s general election.

Providing voting outreach to people with disabilities, DRW has set up post at the People First of Washington conference, Seattle’s Americans with Disabilities Act celebration and NAMI of Washington conference, in an attempt to encourage people with disabilities to exercise their right to vote. Registration forms and informational handbooks on voting and accessibility were on hand to help educate individuals on voting rights. 

As some people may not realize they have the right to vote, outreach efforts have included informing people with disabilities of those rights. If an individual was appointed a guardian after July 24, 2005, or a limited guardianship prior to, then they retain the right to vote. If a full guardianship was placed before July 24, 2005, then the right to vote has been revoked, but individuals have the option to appear before a judge to have that right reinstated. 

Additionally, people living in nursing homes, adult family homes, psychiatric hospitals and other residential facilities retain the right to vote unless they fall under previously stated guardianship restrictions.

Once registered, people with disabilities have many rights when it comes to casting a vote. As with all voters in Washington, people with disabilities have the right to vote by mail, but also the right to vote on an accessible voting unit (AVU). An AVU is a machine designed to allow people with varying abilities to  vote with confidence and privacy. On a given AVU, an individual could vote using sip-and-puff, audio and tactile switches. 

In an interview with Shirley Forsgren of Whatcom County, the importance of accessible voting was made clear. Shirley told the story of a local blind woman who votes in each election using an AVU. The woman is able to print out her voters’ pamphlet in Braille, bring it along with her to the polling site using the county accessible transit system, and sit down in the elections office and cast her vote in Braille on the AVU. 

With technology advances designed to aid people with disabilities in voting, it has been a priority of Disability Rights Washington to ensure that access to these machines and to elections offices is adequate.

Leading up to the primary election in August, DRW surveyed approximately 20 counties to find out how accessible voting is to people with disabilities in Washington. The survey used in these instances includes three sections: a pre-survey data collection, a physical accessibility survey and an interview with county auditors and election staff. The results of these surveys will be published in a report that will be sent to the Secretary of State’s office along with a list of suggestions for improvement.

In three sections, the survey covers issues including website and voicemail accessibility, accessibility of county elections offices and polling places (do the buildings and parking lots abide by ADA standards?), and interviews with auditors and elections staff, that includes discussion on outreach to voters with disabilities, the role of the county disability advisory council, and alternate formats for ballots and voting materials. Overall, county auditors and elections staff have been receptive and welcoming to the idea of improving access for people with disabilities during elections.

Based on the surveys already completed, there have been some consistent issues found around voting accessibility. Problems such as a lack of signage for accessible pathways, temporary barriers on the accessible route to the elections office, lack of signage and information regarding the 20-day early voting period, voting posters and other information placed too high on walls and heavy doors due to high resistance were all common amongst counties.

Most of these issues, however, have low-cost, simple solutions. Simple fixes like having elections staff regularly walk the accessible routes and posting temporary “vote here” signs during the 20-day early voting period could aid in identifying and eliminating barriers to accessible pathways and also inform the public of the early voting period. Other solutions include moving information and posters to a reasonable level for those who use wheelchairs and lowering the resistance on building doors to make them lighter are easy to do, and could make all the difference in providing accessibility for voters.

Related Links

The 2010 Election accessibility survey.