The right to vote is a cornerstone of democracy and is among our most fundamental rights as citizens. Approximately one in seven (35 to 46 million) Americans who are of voting age have accessibility needs. As the population ages, the number of voters with disabilities is expected to grow substantially.
In 2002, Congress enacted the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). HAVA requires voting systems to be accessible to individuals with disabilities, including those who are blind and have visual impairments. “Accessibility” means that persons with disabilities must be provided “with the same opportunity for access and participation (including privacy and independence) as for other voters.” In particular, there must be “at least one direct electronic recording electronic voting system or other voting system equipped for individuals with disabilities at each polling place.”
Additionally, under HAVA states and units of local governments that receive payments to assure access for persons with disabilities must make “polling places, including the path of travel, entrances, exits, and voting areas of each polling facility, accessible to persons with disabilities . . ., in a manner that provides the same opportunity for access and participation (including privacy and independence) as for other voters.” Persons with disabilities must also be provided “with information about the accessibility of polling places, including outreach programs to inform the individuals about the availability of accessible polling places and training election officials, poll workers, and election volunteers on how best to promote the access and participation of individuals with disabilities in elections for Federal office.”
Despite the improvements HAVA has made to the accessibility of the electoral process for persons with disabilities, significant barriers remain. The National Council on Disability (NCD), an independent federal agency, surveyed nearly 900 voters with disabilities to learn about their experiences during the 2012 election cycle and issued a report in fall 2013. Among the NCD’s key findings were:
- Nearly 40% of respondents encountered physical barriers at their polling places.
- Forty-five percent reported barriers that involved voting machines.
- Nearly 54% encountered barriers inside the polling place.
- Twenty percent stated that they were prevented from exercising a private and independent vote.