Last week, the Justice Department announced that it filed a complaint and proposed consent decree against a Virginia county after it failed to provide physically accessible polling places to people with mobility and vision disabilities. The United States found that at least 21 of Augusta County’s 25 polling places contained architectural barriers such as excessively sloped parking areas, narrow doorways, steep ramps, protruding objects, and inaccessible doorknobs that rendered the facilities inaccessible to voters with disabilities.
The complaint read in part:
“On May 13, 2015, the United States issued a Letter of Findings to Augusta County pursuant to 28 C.F.R. § 35.172. The United States found that of the County’s 25 polling places used in the 2013 elections, only four were accessible on Election Day to voters with disabilities. Of the remaining 21 polling places, the United States found that 19 were not accessible for use as polling places, but had non-compliant elements that could be remedied with temporary measures (such as portable ramps) such that, if appropriately implemented, the polling places would be accessible on Election Day. The United States found that the remaining two facilities, including the Augusta County Government Center, were not accessible for use as polling places and could not be made accessible without permanent, architectural modifications.
“Augusta County continues to use 24 of the 25 polling places in federal, state, and local elections, including the two facilities that require permanent modifications to be made accessible. Voters with disabilities assigned to inaccessible polling places are being harmed in that they are being denied the same opportunities as nondisabled voters to vote in person on Election Day and to participate equally in the electoral process.”
Augusta County is a “public entity” and subject to requirements under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Augusta County operates services, programs, and activities within the meaning of Title II, including operating a voting program for federal, state, and local elections for which it selects the sites used as polling places in those elections. Title II of the ADA requires public entities to ensure that all of their polling places are accessible to people with disabilities.
Under the consent decree, which must be approved by the court, the County has agreed to make permanent architectural changes to a number of polling place facilities, and to provide temporary measures such as portable ramps and temporary doorbells at others, to provide accessible polling places throughout the County. The County, which cooperated with the United States, also agreed to revise its policies and polling place survey instrument, and provide training to poll officials.
“Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division. “Through the ADA, the promise of equal voting rights for people with disabilities is fulfilled. Under this agreement, voters with disabilities in Augusta County can vote at the polling place near their home alongside their neighbors and friends, like other voters.”
“The ability of the people to participate in our elected system of government requires access for all to voting places,” said U.S. Attorney Anthony P. Giorno of the Western District of Virginia. “The agreement in this case represents a substantial step toward guaranteeing voting access to all of our citizens.”
Going forward, the Justice Department said the county will select polling places that are accessible on election day. The county must also provide training to poll workers and file reports with the Justice Department on its compliance.
Kristi Avalos, an accessibility expert and president and CEO of Accessology noted the importance of polling places being accessible to everyone, “The days of voting in church basements are over. Voting is one of our most basic rights and that right needs to be available to everyone. Having accessible locations ensures that it is.”
Accessology, a nationwide consulting organization on issues of access under the ADA , has been warning municipalities and other public as well as private entities that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has been targeting municipalities to review their compliance with the ADA. According to their research, the McKinney, Texas based ADA Consultation company has found that settlements reached by the DOJ with the various entities have increased 50% since 2012 and 36% since 2013.
Augusta County is not the first entity to come under a DOJ review of polling places. Polling places in Galveston County, Texas, Flint, Michigan, the City of Philadelphia and Blair County, Pa. have also come under DOJ scrutiny. And, in Texas, a Department of Justice agreement with McLennan County included a detailed description on how to select a polling location by evaluating the physical accessibility, including measuring slopes, door openings and the force required to open a door, according to the Waco Tribune.
(NOTE: If you would like assistance reviewing your compliance under the ADA, or need consultation on accessibility related issues, contact Accessology at 972-434-0068 or visit the website here http://accessology.com/ )