When Richard Clay tried to vote at his Detroit polling site last November, the alternative voting machine meant to assist people with disabilities malfunctioned.
Clay, who has spent most of his life unable to see after a childhood battle with cancer, said election workers helped him vote by reading the options aloud and filling out his ballot. But Clay said he didn’t feel the accommodation was appropriate.
“They don’t understand that what they’re doing is an absolute failure because it is absolutely robbing me of my constitutional rights to be able to cast a private, independent vote,” Clay, a board member of the Detroit chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, told BridgeDetroit.
“I just know, from speaking to people across the city who are blind, far too many people have experiences like mine,” he said.
A new report from Detroit Disability Power, an advocacy group pushing for greater investment in government services and accommodations for people with disabilities, found 20 out of 167 polling locations in Detroit were fully accessible. Detroit uses 170 polling locations.
Volunteers were deployed to 261 polling sites across 15 jurisdictions in Southeast Michigan on Nov. 8, 2022, to collect data on accessibility features. Data was analyzed by the Carter Center, an international nonprofit founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. The advocacy organization’s report builds on other efforts to record barriers at polling locations from groups like the U.S. Government Accountability Office and National Council on Disability.
Detroit Disability Power Executive Director Dessa Cosma said the report reveals significant problems with parking, building entrances, specialized voting terminals, privacy and accessible voting booths. Cosma said she hopes the report provides a roadmap for local clerks to improve accessibility. Similar issues were encountered across metro Detroit; the report found only 16% of polling sites out of 261 visited by the volunteers were fully accessible.
“This is a matter of our civil rights, this is a matter of legality and it’s a matter of respecting disabled residents in the city of Detroit,” Cosma said. “We’re going to keep advocating and working with any clerks that will work with us until our community is able to access democracy like we should be able to.”
Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey disputed the study findings, arguing her office hasn’t observed widespread problems with accessibility. Winfrey said her staff ensures each polling location has accessible ramps and the option for curbside voting. Winfrey said troubleshooters visit precincts on Election Day to assist poll workers with issues as they arise.
Winfrey, who has administered Detroit elections across five terms as clerk since 2005, claimed the report isn’t an accurate picture of Detroit’s compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards.
“We go over and above what is required by law,” Winfrey told BridgeDetroit.
However, Winfrey shared an internal scorecard that showed not all polling locations in the city are fully ADA compliant. According to data collected by Winfrey’s office, 22% of polling locations aren’t fully ADA compliant, including 29 polling locations (17%) that had no handicap parking signage and nine locations (5%) lacked a wheelchair ramp.
Detroit Disability Power found 57% of Detroit polling locations had working voter assistance terminals, 51% had accessible parking, 35% had accessible entrances, and only 12% had accessible voting booths.
“I’m not saying (the Detroit clerk’s office) doesn’t make an effort, but there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that it’s not fully (accessible),” said Cosma, a Detroit resident. “I am a wheelchair user and I’ve had problems going to vote myself. For someone to say this is not real is pretty problematic. It flies in the face of photos (taken at city polling sites) and our own personal experience.”
“This report is not specifically dumping on Detroit, it’s an across-the-board problem,” Cosma added.
Cosma said the report provides important data on barriers that can prevent people from voting. Americans with disabilities vote at a lower rate compared to their peers. Detroit’s overall turnout was 34% in 2022, close to half of the turnout rate statewide (62%).
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates 20% of Detroit’s population is disabled, higher than the statewide average of 13%. There are roughly 113,000 disabled Detroiters who are of voting age, according to the census.
Detroit Disability Power shared with BridgeDetroit a few specific examples of potential issues observed at polling locations last year in the city.
Volunteers observed ADA parking spaces weren’t marked at Bagley Elementary School or Burns Seventh-Day Adventist Church. And a polling location at the Boys and Girls Club was deemed inaccessible because the door was too heavy to be opened by someone in a wheelchair.
Voting assistance terminals at Barack Obama Leadership Academy and Bunche Preparatory Academy were placed where anyone walking into the polling location could see inside. An accessible voting booth at Cooke STEM Academy was used as a hand sanitizer station and had documents covering it and a “makeshift ramp” on the side entrance of a polling site at Bethany Lutheran Church was inaccessible for motorized wheelchairs.
Detroit Disability Power’s report recommends improving statewide coordination between local clerks and the Michigan Secretary of State to provide resources. It also calls for clearly labeled pathways into polling locations and to ensure poll workers receive training on voter assistance terminals. The Detroit clerk’s office expects to hire 7,300 to 7,500 poll workers for the 2024 presidential election.
Deputy Secretary of State Aghogho Edevbie met with Detroit Disability Power on Monday, according to a statement from the Michigan Department of State. A spokesperson said the state is working with local stakeholders and clerks “to develop solutions to the issues outlined in the report.”
Winfrey’s office works closely with Warriors on Wheels of Metropolitan Detroit, another advocacy organization for disabled residents. The group coordinates poll worker training, meets regularly with Detroit officials to ensure polling locations are accessible and runs an Election Day hotline for residents to report issues.
Warriors on Wheels Founder and CEO Lisa Franklin, a Dearborn resident who previously lived in Detroit, said Winfrey’s office has made great strides to address accessibility concerns, though there is more work to be done.
“We need new (voter assist terminals), there are a lot that aren’t working properly,” Franklin said. “Building access, signage and making sure poll workers are knowledgeable about people with disabilities – we’ve been working on that. I feel like the clerk is committed. There’s always room for improvement, but the fact is they’ve been working with us.”
Franklin said she was surprised by the report’s findings and plans to set up a meeting with Winfrey and Detroit Disability Power. Cosma said the clerk’s office hasn’t responded to her requests for a meeting, though Winfrey told BridgeDetroit she would contact Detroit Disability Power.
Winfrey said accessibility is considered when choosing polling locations. Most are in schools and churches, which are required to be accessible year-round, she said
“We only look for polling locations that meet the requirements,” Winfrey said. “We prefer buildings that are already ADA accessible. Most of our buildings are. For the few that are not, we provide signage and ramps and the like.”
Detroit provides a dedicated polling place for voters with disabilities at the Department of Elections, 2978 W. Grand Blvd. Voters can report issues on Election Day by calling (313) 876-0190.
Voters can also cast a ballot from their car by request. Curbside voting allows residents to ask election officials to bring a ballot outside. However, in one case documented by Detroit Disability Power, poll workers weren’t outside to receive a Detroiter who tried to vote curbside. They had to rely on a stranger to go inside the polling location and bring out an election worker.
Any Michigan resident can cast a ballot without entering a polling location thanks to the expansion of mail-in voting. Federal law requires ballot drop boxes be accessible for disabled voters.
Stephen Handschu, a member of the National Federation of the Blind, said the report describes similar experiences he’s had with voter assist terminals meant to help people with a range of impairments cast a private ballot.
Handschu, who is partially blind, said he’s given up on using voter assistance terminals. He’s repeatedly had problems hearing audio instructions because the machines are set up incorrectly, Handschu said.
Clay noted he’s encountered terminals that aren’t working or haven’t been set up when he’s arrived to cast a ballot.
The National Federation of the Blind successfully sued the Michigan Secretary of State to create an accessible absentee ballot after no-reason absentee voting was added in the Michigan Constitution in 2018. Clay said the federation could take legal action against jurisdictions that don’t follow accessibility requirements.
“When you go out on Election Day, it’s terrible,” Clay said. “It’s allowed to happen year after year; it’s an outright violation of the law.”