MSW, Voting Rights Specialist, National Disability Rights Network
The average American may be hard pressed to point Randolph County out on a map. This little county on rural, former plantation lands in southwestern Georgia was certainly not at the forefront of the struggle for voting rights in the United States. Yet, shortly before the 2018 midterm elections, all of that changed when the county’s election officials and their hired consultants announced a plan to close seven of the county’s nine polling places, all—coincidentally—in precincts where the majority of voters are African American. Following a disastrous run in the press, the Randolph County Board of Elections had the good sense not to shut down roughly 80 percent of its polling places. But it was too late, and the damage was done. Randolph County had inadvertently shined a national spotlight on nefarious voter suppression tactics in Georgia, including a novel strategy that pit ostensibly natural allies in the fight for civil rights—people of color and people with disabilities—against each other.
Unwittingly—or otherwise—election officials leveraged people with disabilities against Black voters when it cited failure to comply with the accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as the reason for the mass closure of polling locations. And to an extent, there is truth to be found in this explanation.
America’s polling places have an accessibility problem. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that only 40 percent of polling places were fully accessible in 2016. As dismal as it may seem that less than half of polling places in the U.S. are ADA compliant, that percentage is actually at an all-time high. Across our nation, voters with disabilities are showing up on Election Day despite being confronted with polling places with too few accessible parking spaces, no paved parking lot or path of travel, doors that are too heavy to open, dangerously steep ramps, and even makeshift “ramps” of folding tables propped on wooden blocks. And it doesn’t get much better on the inside. Voting stations are often not set up for wheelchair access, don’t protect the privacy of the voter’s ballot, and don’t have headphones ready for audio balloting. All too often, the accessible voting system is not even set up and turned on for use.
Make no mistake: inaccessible polling places are an active voter suppression threat to eligible voters with disabilities. This is a long-standing, nationwide form of discrimination, and our election officials must act immediately to bring their polling locations into compliance with the ADA. Disability advocates are undeterred and will continue to survey polling sites, work with elections officials, and proactively solve accessibility issues with low-cost solutions and same-day modifications that ensure ADA compliance and prevent polling place closure. Ultimately, shutting down large numbers of polling places benefits no voters and fails to improve accessibility.
We know from GAO data that the majority of polling places have failed to comply with the ADA since its inception. Given that this is a persistent and widespread problem, we must ask: why would any one county suddenly become so concerned with ADA compliance? Why did this concern suddenly present itself right before a major election? Why in a majority African-American county? Why in a county formerly covered under the federal pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 based on a well-documented history of suppressing the African-American vote? I would posit that if it looks like voter suppression and it sounds like voter suppression, then it likely is voter suppression—this time under the pretext of caring about the previously ignored needs of disabled voters and using ADA noncompliance as a convenient scapegoat.
Perhaps even more sinister are the noted attempts to criminalize providing assistance to eligible voters. Under the Voting Rights Act—and Mississippi law—people with disabilities are guaranteed the right to an assistor of their choice when casting a ballot. This provision, however, did not protect Quitman County’s Debra Dennard, who was charged with two felony charges for assisting her father, a partially blind amputee, with filling out his absentee ballot. Quitman County’s overzealous election officials also ensnared Lula Smart, a voting rights activist, in their fevered attempt to root out statistically baseless voter fraud. Ms. Smart was charged with a whopping 32 felonies, totaling more than 100 years in prison, for carrying sealed absentee ballots to a mailbox. The targeted prosecution of Black community leaders, including for exercising their federal right to assist voters with disabilities cast a ballot will create fear and apprehension among African-American voters and voters with disabilities alike—establishing a new, bold, and divisive frontier in voter suppression tactics.
In light of all this, advocates with disabilities have learned that we can never back down from demanding full compliance with the ADA, protecting voters’ right to assistance, and fighting to end all forms of voter suppression. In these turbulent political times, we urge African-American and disabled voters to stand in solidarity when any voter’s rights are threatened. We must stay vigilant against voter suppression tactics as we prepare for the 2020 presidential election. We, the people—the people of color, the people with disabilities, the people who scare the status quo—are neither fooled nor frightened by these tactics—and we are not going anywhere.