In the lead-up to this year’s midterm elections, HuffPost Opinion asked writers to examine the many ways that voting ― a fundamental and hard-won civil right ― is imperiled in the United States. In far too many cases, Americans are blocked from exercising that right. This piece is part of that series, Democracy Denied.
Before August 2018, few people outside the state of Georgia had ever heard of little Randolph County, in the rural southwestern part of the state, land that was once used for plantations. That’s when elections officials and their hired consultants unveiled a plan to close seven of the county’s nine polling places, all in precincts where the majority of voters are African-American. After a spate of bad press, including national coverage in The Washington Post, Randolph County officials hastily voted down the plan. It was a clear victory for Georgia voters.
But by then, the Randolph County Board of Elections had opened a can of worms and revealed a new strategy for suppressing voters: pitting natural allies ― people of color and people with disabilities ― against each other.
The board and the consultant they hired ― Mike Malone, a supporter of Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp, who’s currently Georgia secretary of state ― justified closing roughly 80 percent of their polling places by arguing the sites were not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. They provided very little evidence to support this claim, showing no actual survey results derived from publicly available survey tools created by the Department of Justice. (The DOJ is responsible for enforcing the ADA and issues the very guidelines for polling place accessibility that are used to determine whether a polling place is ADA-compliant.)
Instead, the board shared a set of slides featuring photos of polling places that, admittedly, looked less than accessible, but that could also be fixed easily and at low cost. They flaunted images of paved walkways that violated the ADA’s minimal requirements because they did not connect to paved parking lots. As if wheelchairs would be abandoned forever in a few feet of grass that could have been covered easily with a cheap plank of wood to complete the accessible pathway.
A new strategy for suppressing voters: pitting natural allies ― people of color and people with disabilities ― against each other.
The board’s tactics amount to a local board of elections calling into question the DOJ’s enforcement of the ADA and undermining disability rights advocacy on a national stage. As the Randolph County plan garnered national attention, disability rights advocates were forced to defend the need for accessible polling places at all. They were also forced to defend settlement agreements between the DOJ and counties with inaccessible polling places. Because of the Randolph County plan, these agreements, which were intended to enforce the ADA and protect the right to vote for people with disabilities, were painted as a voter suppression effort.
It’s true that America’s polling places have an accessibility problem. In 2016, the Government Accountability Office found that only 40 percent of polling places were fully accessible ― and as dismal as that number may seem, it’s an all-time high. All over the country, voters with disabilities are fighting to vote despite their polling places having too few accessible parking spaces or no paved lot at all, doors that are too heavy to pull open, ramps that are too steep or dangerous and makeshift ramps assembled from folding tables propped up on wooden blocks. Once inside, many accessible voting stations are not set up for wheelchair access, they allow other voters waiting in line to observe the ballot being marked and they do not have headphones ready for blind voters to use the audio function. They may not even be set up and turned on.
Polling places that are inaccessible and threaten to disenfranchise eligible voters with disabilities are a long-standing and nationwide problem, and election officials must act to come into full compliance with the ADA. Disability rights advocates will not back down from this position, and we will continue to survey polling sites and work collaboratively with elections officials to solve their accessibility woes.
In 2016, the Government Accountability Office found that only 40 percent of polling places were fully accessible ― and that’s an all-time high.
Yet, disability rights advocates are not asking, and have never asked, for large numbers of polling places to be closed in the name of the ADA, because closing polling places benefits no voters. Imagine that all the noncompliant polling places ― 60 percent of all existing sites ― are closed. If the increased distance to the remaining polling places sounds like a barrier for the average voter, imagine what it might take to get there if your disability prevented you from driving and, like most Americans, your public transit options were lacking or nonexistent. Are the remaining, ADA-compliant, polling places really accessible if no one can get to them? Of course not. That’s why disability rights advocates routinely assist in surveying polling places and typically recommend low-cost solutions and same-day modifications to make them more accessible ― or help find an alternate location that is more accessible and, importantly, nearby.
In areas where finding accessible or readily adaptable polling places proves difficult, federal and state laws provide for any number of solutions to prevent mass polling place closures. People with disabilities can typically cast an absentee ballot, vote curbside at the inaccessible polling place or have voting equipment brought to them in their homes. Solutions such as portable ramps, temporary parking signs and door props are affordable and can be supplied by the elections authority, and these solutions can be implemented without requiring costlier upgrades like pouring a cement ramp.
While these solutions are not ideal, they exist for a reason: to help alleviate the need to make 100 percent of America’s polling places immediately accessible when elections administrators face high barriers and limited options, while still ensuring that all eligible voters have a means to cast their ballots.
Polling places have failed to comply with the ADA for years. The problem is persistent and widespread. So, we must ask: Why has the Randolph County Board of Elections suddenly become so concerned about that problem? Why now? Why here? No other counties in the U.S. with similarly dismal accessibility ratings suddenly felt so pressed to comply with the ADA that they tried to close the majority of their voting sites immediately before a major midterm election. Before August of this election year, this little county’s polling places were not on anyone’s radar.
Polling places have failed to comply with the ADA for years. … Why has the Randolph County Board of Elections suddenly become so concerned about that problem?
Perhaps we can’t know the answers to those questions. But we do know the county in question is majority African-American. We also know that the entire state of Georgia has a documented history of suppressing the black vote and was consequently subject to federal pre-clearance under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That pre-clearance would have prevented mass poll closures ― before it was weakened by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013.
Completing the proposed closures in Randolph County would have jeopardized access to the vote for the county’s 1,700 registered voters and stopped black voters from exercising their civil rights by targeting precincts where up to 98-99 percent of voters are African-American. If it looks like voter suppression and it sounds like voter suppression, then it probably is voter suppression. Only this time, there’s a new scapegoat: people with disabilities. Using the ADA to close polling places constitutes nothing more than an attempt to suppress minority voters by pitting natural civil rights allies ― voters of color and voters with disabilities ― against each other.
We must stay vigilant against these kinds of attacks in turbulent political times, as we head into the midterm elections. People with disabilities will not back down from demanding full enforcement of the ADA, making all of America’s polling places accessible and ending voter suppression in all its forms. We know our allies across civil rights movements will stand with us in solidarity, and we will not be silent when any marginalized voters are being challenged or suppressed. We, the people ― the people of color, the people with disabilities ― are not fooled. And we are not going anywhere.
Michelle Bishop is the voting rights specialist at the National Disability Rights Network. She provides training and technical assistance to NDRN’s national network on access for voters with disabilities and works in Washington, D.C., on voting rights and elections administration policy.