The organization I work for, Detroit Disability Power (DDP), began conducting small-scale audits in 2018 to determine if polling places were adhering to access laws for people with disabilities after all of our members had encountered access barriers when attempting to fulfill their civic responsibility to vote. Disturbed by what we found, those initial efforts expanded significantly last year when DDP partnered with The Carter Center (TCC) to evaluate the accessibility of polling locations for disabled people in metro Detroit on a greater scale. Our audit of more than 260 polling places in 15 jurisdictions found that only 16% were fully accessible.
These results are dismal. But they are also not surprising to people in the disability community. We know from firsthand experience that widespread problems exist because we are the ones being forced to confront and tackle them if we want to exercise our right to fully participate in democracy and have our voices heard.
Heard on issues that are important to us as individuals, and heard on issues of importance to the disability community as a whole – a community nearly all of us will belong to at some point in our lives.
We Won’t Be Left Behind
More than 1.4 Michiganders have a disability. And every single one of us who is eligible to vote should be able to exercise that right unimpeded. Instead, we represent a large segment of the population that’s being left behind.
To increase accountability, we are urging people to contact their lawmakers and voice support for passage of the Michigan Voting Rights Act which was introduced in June 2023 by state Sen. Darrin Camilleri. In addition to providing important protections to minority voters and voters whose native language is not English, the bill includes critical provisions that will provide new legal remedies to address the access barriers we found in our audit. The bill would allow disabled people who encounter violations of the law when attempting to vote, to ask a court to appoint a monitor to ensure that the jurisdiction in question has a comprehensive plan in place to protect disabled voters and that any future violations are promptly addressed.
As the bill currently stands, curbside voting would be available at all polling locations. Opposition against this provision has been voiced by some, but DDP is in staunch support of making curbside voting available as it gives disabled voters additional options. Having additional options available makes it possible for voters to be empowered and choose the option that is most accessible to them based on their access needs.
Beyond that, we are working in partnership with election officials and other election stakeholders to cultivate data-driven solutions to chronic and preventable voter access issues. The goal is to create a model for accessibility. Every issue is a disability issue, and our voices must be considered. However, that cannot occur unless we can access polling locations and are able to cast our ballots privately and independently.
Unfortunately, lack of access at the polls extends far beyond metro Detroit. Inaccessibility is an issue that exists across our state and country, with national data from 2016 showing that 60% of polling locations in the U.S. had at least one access barrier.
As a blind person, this is an issue of immense importance to me on a personal level. My most recent voting experiences didn’t involve problems at the polling place itself. Instead, I encountered challenges voting absentee. The problem was the ballot itself: I couldn’t read it or complete it privately and independently.
Despite my best efforts to advocate for an accessible ballot, I was told to have my caretaker complete it on my behalf. However, the woman at the State Board of Election failed to consider I live alone and do not have someone available at any moment. Like everyone else, we value independence and autonomy, and want to embrace both to the fullest extent possible. Beyond independence, it boils down to disabled people being able to make choices and decide what method works best for us.
Which is what I wanted – and had a right to -- when voting by absentee ballot -- from the privacy of my own home, with no one else knowing my choices in what is supposed to be a secret ballot. Instead, despite my best efforts, I ended up with a ballot I couldn’t read. Consequently, that meant I needed to find someone who was trustworthy enough to serve as my scribe and complete it ethically for me.
I should not have to be put in an uncomfortable position–deciding whether to cast my ballot with assistance, hoping my choices would be marked as I wished, or simply not engaging in our democratic process. The same applies to voters who are wheelchair users who go to polling places that have no voting booths at the appropriate height or available in a location where they can vote privately. The same applies to voters who require the use of a Voter Assist Terminal (VAT) to cast their ballot due to a visual or print disability. Although disabled people often use VATs, they are available for any voter to use.
We should be able to choose how we cast our ballot and not simply settle for the bare minimum when it comes to access. We deserve the same privacy – and dignity – afforded every other voter. When we are denied equitable access to the ballot, we are left feeling angry and frustrated rather than satisfied and empowered. This will only continue if more is not done to improve place accessibility.
Nearly all of the metro Detroit jurisdictions observed (14 of 15) did not have fully set up, accessible voting booths, making inaccessible voting booths the most widespread issue of the four measures assessed in our audit. Additionally, though most polling sites had the VATs required by law, many were not in working order.
The good news is that most of the accessibility problems found at polling locations could be easily corrected with little to no cost through better training, commitment, and intentionality. Because 67 of the 261 polling locations we audited had only one access issue, addressing that single access barrier would increase the percentage of fully accessible voting locations in metro Detroit from 16% to 42%, which is not great, but it is certainly better.
Small modifications can make a significant difference to voters with disabilities. For example, it might be something as simple as using a doorstop to keep entryways propped open, making access easier.
We are committed to improving accessibility for disabled voters in Michigan, but we cannot do this work alone. We invite you to join us. We will conduct another audit in 2024. However, in the meantime, we are engaging with clerks and allies and are educating them on improvements that can be made to ensure disabled voters have equitable access to the polls.
A better, more equitable voting future for people with disabilities is within reach. Interested in working with us? Please reach out to Kenia Flores, DDP’s Voting Access and Election Protection Fellow at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kenia Flores is the Voting Access and Election Protection Fellow at Detroit Disability Power.