Smiling child

DRW works to Ensure Accessible Voting Places

Below is the text of a recent interview with Alicia Boehme, DRW’s Voting Rights Coordinator, which aired on Milwaukee Public radio.

State to Spot-Check Polls for Accessibility
By Erin Toner
February 18, 2008 | WUWM | Milwaukee, WI

As voters head to the polls Tuesday, state regulators will be there, too, making sure polling sites aren’t breaking election laws. They require polls and voting machines to be accessible to people with disabilities. A recent state audit found problems. State auditors visited 36 polling places during the election in November 2006. Thirteen sites had parking areas that were problematic for people with disabilities. And 25 sites had inaccessible pathways or entrances. In addition, many voting areas did not allow people with disabilities to vote in private. Advocacy groups say the number of violations is outrageous. Alicia Boehme is the voting rights coordinator for Disability Rights Wisconsin.

“The way I worked this out in my head, I think they found on average over two problems per site. And if we’re looking at a person with a disability who’s really trying to get into the polls to vote, if they’re running into at least two barriers, and these could be major barriers like they can’t even get in the front door, there’s just absolutely no way that they have the same experience as other people do in trying to vote privately and independently,” Boehme says.

Boehme says the problem goes far beyond the 36 sites surveyed for the state audit. She says her group did a larger sampling of polling sites in 2004. It found that three of every four polling sites in Wisconsin had accessibility problems.

“So we’re looking at something that the state Elections Board really needs to take seriously and really needs to work with municipalities to talk to them about how they can rectify the problems and really enforce accessibility. Otherwise, people with disabilities are going to continue to be disenfranchised at the polls. Already, they vote at a rate of 15 percent below the general population and it’s because of these barriers,” Boehme says.

The way the state finds out about barriers to voting is through surveys. Municipalities have to fill them out to get money for new voting equipment. They answer questions about parking lot access, the size of doorways and hallways, and availability of handrails. The state audit suggested some municipalities have not been truthful in the surveys. Kevin Kennedy is legal counsel for the Government Accountability Board, which oversees elections in Wisconsin. He agrees with the audit, that what municipalities put down on paper about accessibility doesn’t always match up with reality.

“And there were two reasons for that. Sometimes the people just weren’t accurate in their measurements or took a shortcut just to get the report done or on Election Day something came up. For example, you have situations where the law requires that a person in a wheelchair is able to get through a door, and if it’s too heavy one of the solutions is you keep the door open, but if the poll workers forget to keep the door open the polling place would have been accessible but for what happened,” Kennedy says.

Kennedy says the state needs to do a better job of ensuring that all people are able to vote without any restrictions. So on Tuesday, the Government Accountability Board’s Elections Division will visit random polling places in Wisconsin.

“We have short-term solutions if something pops up on Election Day. But the main thing is that by following up on this we can make a public record and order the municipalities to comply with the law. And there is always the possibility of the loss of funding for ongoing projects as a result,” Kennedy says.

That could mean local taxpayers would have to foot the bill for voting system upgrades. None of that worries elections officials in Milwaukee. Sue Edman is the city’s election commissioner.

“We did an analysis last summer of all of our polling sites to make sure that all of our sites would be accessible and are accessible to persons with disabilities. We’ve had to leave a few sites and find some different sites but we’re confident that all of the sites will be ready to handle anyone who may have a disability,” Edman says.

The state Elections Division says it will spot-check the polls again during the elections in April and November. Disability rights groups say they’ll be watching to make sure violations are not only identified, but enforced.

© 2008 Board of Regents University of Wisconsin System – WUWM FM