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Delaware Assistive Technology Initiative

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Volume 18, No. 2 - Spring 2010

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Enhancing Voter Participation of People with Disabilities

Daniel Atkins Legal Advocacy Director of the Disabilities Law Program Community Legal Aid Society, Inc.

Community Lebal Aid Society, Inc. of Delaware, CLASI Logo, in blue and white, with the scales of justice balanced in the center of a sheild, and the established date 1946 at the top of the logo.In the 2008 federal election, 14.7 million people with disabilities around the country voted. That is the good news. The bad news is that the voter turnout rate for people with disabilities was 7% less than the rate for people without disabilities. In Delaware, the rate for people with disabilities was 58.7%, and for people without disabilities, 68.4%, meaning Delaware did worse than the national average in helping people with disabilities vote. Numerous factors contribute to low voting rates among people with disabilities—inaccessible polling places and voting machines are just two problems that could be alleviated with better use of existing technology. In 2008, the federal General Accounting Office found that only 27.3% of polling places had “no potential impediments to voting.” In other words, nearly three-quarters of all polling places have at least the potential to present accessibility challenges to people with disabilities.

Voting is a fundamental civil right exercised and enjoyed by citizens and a bedrock principle in the United States. As such, numerous federal laws have been enacted that specifically address the voting rights of US citizens with disabilities. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 recognized for the first time that the law must sometimes be used to protect this fundamental right by explicitly permitting voters who need assistance due to disability or illiteracy to receive help voting from a person of their choice. The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 requires polling places to be physically accessible, unless it is impossible to do so, and requires the reassignment of voters to accessible polling places if the voter requests a new site in advance. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) requires state and local government programs, which include voting, to be accessible. This, unfortunately, does not mean that all voting places must be accessible, but rather that if voting is taking place in a state or local government building and that polling place is inaccessible, a voter with a disability must be provided with a place or method of voting that enables him/her to vote. The ADA also requires that polling places in a “place of public accommodation” (which means a place that is open to the public, but not a government building) must make readily achievable modifications to facilitate voting. Furthermore, the ADA requires all new buildings built after 1992 to be fully accessible.

In the 2008 election, the Federal Election Commission estimated that between 20,000 and 120,000 polling places were inaccessible. Eight percent of voters with disabilities experienced some problem voting, including polling place accessibility, functionality of machines, or readability of ballots. Among people with disabilities, people with hearing impairments have the highest turnout, and not surprisingly, people who need assistance leaving their homes have the lowest turnout. This is due not only to inaccessible polling places but also to a lack of accessible transportation on Election Day.

In 2002, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) created a new federal agency clearinghouse for voting issues, provided funds to improve voting administration and systems, enacted minimum accessibility standards for states, and gave money to Protection and Advocacy agencies like the Disabilities Law Program of Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. (DLP of CLASI) of Delaware to enhance voting participation by people with disabilities. As a result of HAVA, all polling places and voting systems must be accessible to individuals with disabilities. Election officials must make reasonable accommodations and modifications to help individuals vote. Accommodations include architectural modifications such as the installation of exterior ramps, ballot changes such as large print, and wheelchair accessible voting booths at polling places. Modifications may include giving a voter extra time, permitting an “X” or stamp in lieu of a signature, or letting a helper accompany a voter into the voting booth. Most importantly, each polling place must have at least one Direct Recording Electronic Voting System or other system equipped for people with disabilities. Delaware uses the Guardian Electronic 1242, which has a tilt feature that changes the orientation of the voting system for people who cannot stand, as well as a system known as “ADAM,” for voters with visual impairments.

Voting has become increasingly sophisticated, though the pace of such change is slow. One recent national survey revealed the following:

National voting systems in use

National numbers tell the story

punch cards


lever systems


optical scanners


computer systems


paper ballots




discarded ballots due to voter error


Regardless of a voter’s disability, the voting process can be quite challenging. Punch cards, for example, are particularly problematic for voters with vision impairments. Voting can occur in more ways than entering a voting booth—absentee voting, voting by mail, and curbside voting as an alternative to machine voting. While email, absentee, and mail voting are a trend, some individuals with disabilities understandably want the complete experience of going to the polls on Election Day. However, among voters with disabilities, 59% voted at the polls, compared to 71% of all voters.

The DLP of CLASI is working with Delaware state officials to improve the accessibility of voting places. The DLP monitors all federal elections, inspecting as many sites as we can to ensure that voters with disabilities are able to access their polling place and voting booth. We train poll workers, educate consumers about their voting rights, and enforce those rights when violated. If you have questions or concerns about voting, please contact your county DLP of CLASI office:

New Castle: 100 W. 10th Street, Suite 801, Wilmington DE 19801, 302-575-0690

Kent: 840 Walker Road, Dover, DE, 19904, 302-674-8500

Sussex: Georgetown Professional Park, 20151 Office Circle, Georgetown, DE 19947, 302-856-0038. ■

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