Removing physical barriers in America’s polling places

Blog 10, May 2022

Physical access to U.S. polling places is something most of us take for granted. But voters with physical challenges face real obstacles that can make it difficult for them to vote in person – or even prevent it. Local elections officials often close polling places if they do not meet ADA requirements, creating even more challenges for voters with disabilities.

We have an opportunity to promote a solution: automatic doors. They can help enable safe and independent access to in-person voting sites for those who are physically disabled.

Because the right to vote lies at the heart of our democracy, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently released a special publication addressing voting access for citizens with disabilities. Informed by advocacy groups and voters with disabilities who have experienced difficulties voting in a private and independent manner, the report offers recommendations for removing barriers.

Among the barriers called out are doorways that are too narrow for wheelchairs and doors that are too heavy to be opened by voters with disabilities. Automatic doors are a safe and effective solution for both.

As noted in the NIST report, polling locations across the country vary in their physical accessibility. Said one manual wheelchair user, “Even in 2021, my assigned precinct is inaccessible for me.” Even the local elementary school where I vote has heavy metal doors that can create an often insurmountable barrier for some voters with disabilities. While personnel are available to help, many people with disabilities prefer to act independently. Waiting for someone to open a door is counter to that desire for independence.

Meeting with local officials can help identify polling places that would benefit from automatic doors. Some states’ websites also encourage reporting of physically inaccessible polling sites. For example, Wisconsin has an online tool they use to help identify areas of focus for future elections. Such tools take on relevance with the presidential election coming in 2024.

There is movement in congress to address physical voting accessibility. U.S. House Bill 2941 would permanently reauthorize and expand a Department of Health and Human Services grant program aimed at increasing accessibility to polling places. Tellingly, the first condition for receiving a grant is that the funds must be used “to make polling places, including the path of travel, entrances, exits, and voting areas of each polling facility, accessible to individuals with the full range of disabilities.” Again, automatic doors sound like a perfect solution.

Supporting this legislation is as easy as writing an email in favor of it to your elected representative.

Exploring opportunities to expand physical access to in-person voting is a win for everyone: good for business, good for voters with disabilities, and good for our democracy.

Further Reading:

Voters with Disabilities: Observations on Polling Place Accessibility and Related Federal Guidance

Promoting Access to Voting: Recommendations for Addressing Barriers to Private and Independent Voting for People with Disabilities

State Grants for Election Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities


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