By CORTNEY ERNDT
Capital News Service
LANSING – Election officials say they are striving to make polling places more accessible to voters with disabilities.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated that nationally, 45 percent of polling places have impediments, such as lack of ramps.
Justin Roebuck, elections coordinator at the Ottawa County Clerk’s office, said, “It’s very important that we are completely accommodating our voters and have equal opportunity.”
Roebuck said polling places in his county provide lowered tables and ramps for wheelchairs.
“There is nothing in law that would restrict anyone who is disabled from voting,” Roebuck said, “We never make a judgment on who is capable of making voting choices.”
Roebuck said the Help America Vote Act of 2002 improved polling places’ standards by requiring better physical access and technology to disabled voters.
His office provides devices to assist voters with impaired vision and hearing that reads text through headphones or allows them to use a touch-screen or buttons to make selections in secret.
His office also provides precinct workers to help disabled voters, Roebuck said.
“We have laws governing how voters can be assisted. For example, a person that doesn’t write well due to a mental handicap can be assisted by a precinct worker,” Roebuck said.
Joan Skinner, a deputy clerk in St. Joseph County, said her county’s polling locations use equipment called AutoMARK for voters with disabilities but it may be used by other voters at their request. It resembles a fax machine and can help the visually impaired by providing Braille.
In GAO’s survey, 43 states reported that they set accessibility standards for polling places, up from 23 states in 2000, and 31 states reported that ensuring accessibility is challenging.
In a report on polling place accessibility, the GAO recommended that the U.S. Justice Department looked for opportunities to expand cost-efficient accessibility for voters with disabilities.
For example, Flint improved inaccessible polling places by creating wheelchair ramps and providing lowered tables before the 2012 presidential election because of U.S. Justice Department action.
J. Michael Zelley, chair of the Civil Rights Commission and founder of the Disability Network in Flint, said, “The Michigan Persons With Disabilities Civil Rights Act forbids denying an individual the full and equal enjoyment of the services, facilities and privileges of a public service because of a disability.”
And Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said, “Voters with disabilities in the city will now have the opportunity to exercise their franchise in the same way as other voters in Flint.”
Some localities provide voting services to long-term care facility residents who may face challenges using a polling place.
For example, close to one-third of localities GAO surveyed designate long-term care facilities as Election Day polling places.
By CORTNEY ERNDT