For Detroiters with disabilities, the polling place can be barrier to voting

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A Detroit voter at an ADA compliant voting station. (Photo by Ralph Jones)

Voting at the polls can mean waiting in lines, dressing for the weather, securing child care, or getting time off work. But for those with disabilities, there is so much more to consider. That’s because many Detroit polling places are not accessible or make voting difficult for voters with physical disabilities. 

While federal law requires polling places be accessible for disabled voters or for counties to provide an alternate location if a polling place is not accessible, the reality of casting an in-person ballot can be burdensome.

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Dessa Cosma, the executive director of Detroit Disability Power (DDP), said she struggled to cast a ballot during the 2018 primary because of her physical disability. 

“When I went to vote in my wheelchair, I could get in the polling location, I got my ballot, but when I turned around to fill it out there was nowhere that I could reach,” she said. “All of the voting booths were standing height.”

Cosma was offered space on the poll workers’ table. When she reminded a worker that she should be entitled to her legal right to a private voting experience, the worker got visibly upset. 

“What that told me was they’re not prepared for wheelchair voters, haven’t thought about accessibility in advance, and they weren’t trained how to handle issues with disabled voters.”

Wheelchair access isn’t the only issue. People with different types of disabilities, such as those who are hearing impaired or legally blind, also faced issues with accommodations, Cosma said. Since her 2018 experience, Cosma has been working on polling location accessibility for disabled individuals. She co-founded People with Disabilities Voting Rights Coalition to identify issues within the community and address those problems with city and state officials. 

To increase accessibility, the Michigan Secretary of State allows disabled voters to apply for an accessible absentee voter ballot. According to the Secretary of State’s website, the ballot “allows voters to mark the documents on an electronic device, using their own assistive technology, without visiting a polling place or clerk’s office,” which makes voting easier for blind voters and others with disabilities who are unable to vote via an absentee ballot privately or independently.

The city of Detroit also introduced 30 ballot drop boxes this year, which allow disabled voters to return their ballots without leaving their cars.  

Accessibility for in-person voting

Still, many disabled voters choose to cast ballots in person and by law, voting locations must be accessible.

The Detroit Department of Elections confirmed that every polling place is ADA accessible and has one voter assistance terminal with audio and visual components to help those with disabilities. There are also interpreters, who are identified by their shirts, at the precincts.

Curbside voting is available throughout the state for those who are unable to physically enter the polls, according to the Secretary of State’s office. A voter can call the clerk’s office to arrange that option or send someone in to notify poll workers that a voter needs assistance.  Poll workers are trained on these accessibility options. Moreover, all satellite voting locations are ADA compliant.

However, Cosma believes that without preparation around accessibility and without focused training about how to interact with people with a variety of disabilities, poll workers and polling locations are not going to work sufficiently for people in that community. 

Detroit Disability Power and People with Disabilities Voting Rights Coalition have been working with the Detroit Department of Elections to identify the problems and come up with solutions.

DDP says, despite federal regulations, the organization still fields the following complaints from voters:

  • Building accessibility: Polling locations need an accessible route of travel from a parking lot into the voting booth (no stairs, no narrow doors or corridors). Cosma believes Detroit’s older infrastructure poses unique accessibility challenges. 
  • The functionality of voting machines: Detroit uses Dominion Voting Systems machines that allow those with dexterity challenges, blindness or low vision to fill out a ballot independently. Poll workers do not always know how to use the special machines. 
  • Wheelchair height voting booths: The booths are often adjustable, but not enough polling stations take the time to set one at a lower level. 
  • Poll worker training: Poll workers don’t always know the laws about disability rights when voting and sometimes exhibit poor social skills when dealing with those with disabilities.

Legally, any voter can take someone into the voting booth with them to help them vote, but Cosma said there have been instances in her community when poll workers have told individuals that they cannot take anyone with them to the booth for help.

Teddy Dorsette, communications manager and organizer at DDP, explained how COVID-19 has further complicated issues. 

“Deaf voters cannot take verbal instructions and right now with coronavirus, people have masks on so even lip-reading isn’t an option,” Dorsette said.

Building relationships to bring changes

DDP has worked with the Secretary of State to develop a list of recommendations to pass on to city clerks. However, the election process is decentralized so the Secretary of State and the Bureau of Elections at the state level do not have full control over city clerks. 

“The only real enforcement is through a lawsuit, which means it’s incumbent on the person impacted by the lack of access to file a lawsuit,” Cosma said. “That’s honestly a ridiculous bar and not a route we prefer.”

DDP prefers to build relationships with clerks to show them how important it is to proactively address the issues. Before the pandemic, DVPC met monthly with city officials, including Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey, who was present at many of those meetings. 

“While they were very receptive, we didn’t actually see the changes on the ground, even in the elections since that training,” Cosma said. “So I want to give Clerk Winfrey props for making time for her staff to meet with us so regularly and since then the city did implement training for poll workers on disability inclusion so the effort was there, I just don’t know if the outcome mirrored the effort.”

According to Winfrey, several polling places which were previously inaccessible are now accessible to disabled voters. The Department of Elections confirmed that disabled voters with an inaccessible polling place are eligible to vote without notice at the Department of Elections building until the close of voting at 8 p.m. on Election Day.

This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

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