Disability Rights Idaho's survey of 20 Ada County polling places during the May primary election showed 11 were noncompliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.
“Canyon County did a fairly decent job, they had that contractor helping them,” said Dena Brewer, advocacy director for Disability Rights Idaho, referring to accessibility issues in the neighboring county. "When we went to Ada County, we found a lot (of issues).”
There are roughly 150 Ada County polling locations, Disability Rights Idaho Executive Director Jim Baugh said, and the 20 surveyed were chosen because they've been known to have issues in the past.
Ada County has mitigated many of its problems and works with groups such as Disability Rights Idaho to address these types of concerns.
“ADA compliance is one of the many challenges we face,” Ada County Deputy Clerk Phil McGrane said.
Locations such as churches are exempt from ADA compliance, which can create tricky situations on Election Day, McGrane said. McGrane will appear on the ballot himself this election, along with challengers Graham Carter and Kelly Yvonne Mitchell for the position of Ada County clerk.
McGrane said this election season the county has partnered with the Living Independence Network Corporation, or LINC, to evaluate the 150 sites and set up accommodations at county polling places.
"Some of them are permanent changes, and some of them are temporary changes," McGrane said.
Some of the permanent changes are installing parking signs and changing door knobs to door handles, as knobs are not ADA-compliant. The county funds all of the changes.
Some locations don't want permanent changes, in which case the county will pay for temporary parking accommodations.
SURVEY OF POLLING PLACES
Disability Rights Idaho sends workers to polling places around the county on and before Election Day with a checklist to survey any issues that may arise. However, issues of accessibility can be hard to assess prior to Election Day, as almost all polling places serve another purpose.
“If there’s no one else there, a person with a wheelchair has enough clearance to maneuver around,” Brewer said. “At crunch time, when there’s a lot of folks there registering or voting, it would be very difficult for a person in a wheelchair to have enough access to be able to maneuver in, get to where they need to go and get back out without mashing some toes.”
Similarly, Baugh said many places subject to ADA compliance, such as schools, will only have space issues once full of voters on Election Day.
“You can be architecturally accessible and still create barriers,” he said.
Parking issues often arise, too, but can be taken care of with cones and temporary signage.
One issue is finding a polling place both large enough to accommodate voting and that is either ADA compliant or able to be temporarily modified.
“Once we have a proposed location, the DOJ provides tools,” McGrane said. The Department of Justice, which handles civil rights issues, provides the county with a comprehensive ADA checklist to assess polling places.
The most common violation of ADA regulations is parking, he said. Unless parking is signed for handicap parking, it is not in compliance.
The county has also worked closely with the Idaho Commission for the Blind, McGrane said.
“Every polling place here in Ada County has an assisted voting device,” he said.
Those machines, however, have caused some problems for visually impaired voters, Baugh said.
“One aspect of that is making sure the polling places have the proper accommodations and accessibility features,” he said. “And be able to do so as independently as possible, and be able to do so privately.”
Blind voters can go to the Idaho Commission for the Blind to practice using machines.
Larry Henrie, senior instructor at the Idaho Commission for the Blind, said, “The voting machines are not totally compatible to the blind community."
The biggest problem with the machines used by the county are the audible instructions, Henrie said, as the instructions are not complete and do not allow visually impaired voters to use the voting machines without some assistance from poll workers.
There are braille instructions, and Henrie said he has developed a list of guidelines for poll workers to assist blind voters properly, but that still does not allow blind voters to independently vote.
A few years ago, Henrie was brought in by the county to help resolve issues at polling places. Henrie asked visually impaired voters to test the machines and found that none were able to navigate the process simply using the instructions provided by the manufacturer of the machines.
While the county has been cooperative and receptive of criticisms, the manufacturer is responsible for the audible instructions, he said.
“I know the county has been in touch with the manufacturer and they are working on a fix,” Henrie said. “We’ve had a good partnership and we are working to get these issues resolved.”
Scott Hoover, the coordinator of voting access for Idaho Disability Rights, said while all polling places have at least one machine, issues stemming from training of poll workers to giving adequate instructions to use the machine persist at polls in Ada County.
“Blind voters tend to be the more tricky voters,” Hoover said.
Hoover and Henrie have worked with the county to resolve voting issues.
Without proper instructions, a poll worker may have to assist a blind voter in printing a final ballot or in some other process. Even if the poll worker is properly trained, it violates the voter's right to cast a private ballot, Henrie said.
Disability Rights is now handing out instructions in braille and hopes to avoid invasions of privacy at Ada County polling places.
“That’s the goal, is to get away from that, so that that person can get in there and comfortably cast that ballot privately and independently,” Hoover said.
Disability Rights hands out guides to educate poll workers on how to interact with disabled voters. Hoover said the group also provides onsite training, but only receives a sliver of the two hours of general training to teach 1,600 poll workers.
Individuals with disabilities who incur difficulties at the polls can call Disability Rights Idaho’s statewide toll free number at 866-262-3462.