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Edward B. Foley
Free & Fair is a collection of writings by Edward B. Foley, one of the nation's preeminent experts on election law.

Weekly Comment

Too Little, Too Late

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December 6, 2005

The Gongwer News Service reported on September 26, 2005 that Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell had approved the distribution of $1.1 million in federal grants to county election boards for improved signage and temporary ramps to help make polling places more accessible to disabled voters. Unfortunately, this money is likely to be too little, too late.

The Help America Vote Act requires that states have accessible machines in each precinct by 2006 and allocates $100 million to make polling places more accessible. Further, Congress conditioned the acceptance of federal funds on states adopting federal accessibility standards for polling places. As Ohio wrangles over a paper trail requirement, it has taken few, if any, steps to comply with the accessible machine requirement. (A paper trail isn't much help to a visually impaired voter who can't read the paper trail and must wonder if the person assisting him or her to vote has actually reflected the voter's intent.)

But what is $1.1 million likely to buy for Ohio voters with respect to accessibility? In data supplied to the Election Commission, Ohio reports that it has 6157 polling places and that 76.2% are accessible to voters who are physically disabled. (Ohio provided no figures on accessibility to visually impaired voters.) By Ohio's own figures, there are therefore approximately 1526 polling places that are inaccessible to individuals with physical disabilities. Hence, each polling place would receive approximately $720 to improve its physical accessibility if the $1.1 million were spread evenly among the inaccessible polling places. $720 is approximately the cost of one temporary portable aluminum ramp to provide access across 3-4 steps. That would leave no money to tackle other path of travel issues, provide assistive technology to visually impaired voters, create signage directed at voters with disabilities, and comply with new curbside voting rules. Specialized equipment for voting machines to make them handicapped accessible can cost as much as $5000. $720 is barely a downpayment on the technology needed to make voting accessible in Ohio.

The Government Accounting Office reported in 2000 that 28% of polling places nationwide were physically inaccessible and did not offer curbside voting. By 2004, Ohio still reported that 24% of polling places were inaccessible. So far, the Help America Vote Act has done little to improve accessibility in Ohio. Unfortunately, it is hard to imagine that $1.1 million will make a significant difference by 2006. One aluminum ramp per polling place is unlikely to solve Ohio's problems with voting inaccessibility.