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ADA access still an issue at KC polling places

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Above image credit: (Credit: iStock images)

Laura Ziegler | KCUR
Lindsey Foat | The Hale Center for Journalism

When Susie Haake goes to vote tomorrow, she anticipates waiting outside a closed door.

“I have to wait for a volunteer to see me and open the door for me,” said Haake who cannot open the door herself. She uses a power wheelchair due to polio and post-polio syndrome.

According to Haake, the door to her polling place at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, requires five pounds of pressure to open and is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In addition, Haake plans to take the bus to her polling place because she can’t count on the one van-accessible parking space to be available.

“There needs to be more accessible spaces at these venues because, traditionally, there are more older folks who vote, and the percentage of baby boomers who need accessible parking is growing,” Haake said.

The ADA, which was passed in 1990, explicitly spells out federal requirements for accessibility to polling places.

Election polls, like grocery stores and libraries, are places of public accommodation and covered by the ADA.

Advocates for those with disabilities in the metro say while election boards are generally trying to meet these requirements, challenges remain.

For example, polling places are required to have curbside voting for those who can’t get out of the car. An official from both parties needs to deliver the ballot to the voter, make sure it gets properly recorded and placed in a voting box.

Clay County Republican Director Dave Reinhart said each of the 68 polling places in the county signs a contract and pays $50.00 rent. The contract requires the polls to be ADA compliant. But training for the part time poll workers, he said, could be improved.

“These volunteers only work three or four times a year, and we are trying to help them understand there will be voters with special needs,” he said. “We’re trying to make sure they know  we have accommodations to assist them in voting.”

Each poll must provide access to the wheelchair-bound voter. At some polling places, this access amounts to a makeshift privacy barrier at a table equipped with a paper ballot.

Matthew Rumsey with the Coalition for Independence said the visually impaired frequently experience problems.

Specially equipped booths are supposed to provide audio that reads a ballot aloud and a touchpad that enlarges type or provides a touchpad for the blind.

Also, Rumsey says there are loopholes in the law that may require those with disabilities to go to a different polling place than their neighbors. That’s because some buildings, such as religious organizations, may not be required to adhere to the ADA.

“I’d recommend people call their local election authority to make sure their designated polling place is totally accessible,” he said.

Bob Nichols, Democratic director with the Jackson County Election Board, said aging equipment can present a problem.

“Does it always work the way we want it to, or it’s intended to? No,” he said. “ We’re working with equipment that’s nine years old. Technology has changed.”

Nichols says the election board has technicians on call to respond to problems on election day. He said officials intend to have new equipment in time for the 2016 elections.

Last month, the consumer finance website Wallet Hub rated Overland Park, Kansas, as the best U.S. city for individuals with disabilities.  The rating was based on such factors as economics, quality of life and health care accessibility.  Kansas City, Missouri, ranked 51st out the 150 cities.

Tell KC, a community engagement collaboration between KCUR-FM and KCPT, asked for responses to the report.

While we didn’t ask specifically about the voting process, some referred directly or indirectly to political engagement.

Kevin Siek, whose wife has Multiple Sclerosis and is in a wheelchair, said voting should be a high priority for people with disabilities.

“Justin Dart, the Father of the ADA, once said that folks with disabilities should ‘get involved in politics like your life depends on it, because it does!’” Siek said.

Sharon Joseph, who uses a wheelchair and has lived in Overland Park for nearly 50 years, responded with this.

“Our votes and spending abilities count equally,” Joseph said. “Yet our equal access to the full American dream of life, liberty and the true pursuit of happiness is still seriously lacking.”

Written submissions have been lightly edited for clarity. You can read more responses from community members to Wallet Hub’s rankings here.

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