GAO REPORT CALLS ON DOJ TO RAMP UP ENFORCEMENT OF POLL ACCESSIBILITY FOR OLDER & DISABLED VOTERS


WASHINGTON, D.C. - Today Senators Herb Kohl (D-WI) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) released a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) that recommends the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) step up its efforts to monitor and oversee polling place accessibility. In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, to require polling places to provide at least one voting system that is fully accessible for those with disabilities. DOJ provided initial guidance to states on poll accessibility and conducted an assessment of states' compliance following HAVA's January 2006 deadline for implementation of accessible voting systems. In its study, GAO explains that gaps remain in the law's enforcement by DOJ, including inconsistencies regarding physical accessibility requirements, voting system usability, and independent voting and privacy concerns.
 
"We're moving in the right direction in terms of making sure older and disabled Americans can exercise their right to vote as independently as possible, but we're not there yet," said Kohl. "My hope is that the Department of Justice implements these recommendations in order to reach our goal of total polling place access."
 
"This report shows some progress over the last eight years, the result of the Help America Vote Act and an increased focus on access at the polling place for voters with disabilities," said Harkin. "Still, barriers remain with physical accessibility at the polling place and with the proper placement and availability of the accessible voting equipment. For that reason, we need additional oversight by the U.S. Department of Justice and increased authority for the U.S. Access Board and Election Assistance Commission to work together to promulgate guidelines on how to properly configure the voting area and place accessible voting equipment on Election Day."
 
The report also identifies state practices to facilitate access. GAO found that most states have used HAVA funds to improve polling place accessibility, and that all states require local jurisdictions to offer alternative voting methods such as absentee voting and curbside voting. Thirty-one states described meeting the standards of poll accessibility as challenging. According to the study, 46 percent of polling places had what is considered to be an accessible voting system that could still pose a problem for those with certain disabilities-for example, a voting station that cannot accommodate voters in wheelchairs.
 
Today's report is the second in a series of three that GAO is releasing on voting accessibility this year. The first report, released in June , estimated that only 27 percent of polling places across the country possess all the required features to facilitate private and independent voting for older and disabled voters.  A Rutgers University study indicated that people with disabilities are roughly 15 percent less likely to vote than those without, and with the rapid aging of America's population, the number of voters who may face challenges due to impaired mobility will likely grow. These reports follows up on a study conducted by GAO during the 2000 elections, which found that only 16 percent of polling sites surveyed nationwide were fully accessible to people with disabilities. The final GAO report will be released in November and will focus on voting practices for residents in long-term care facilities.
 
To conduct the study released today, GAO visited representative of polling places nationwide on Election Day 2008 to determine the extent to which states and localities have taken the necessary steps to improved accessibility in the wake of HAVA's passage. In each location, GAO observed features and voting methods that could impede access and interviewed polling officials.
 
Senators requested that GAO conduct the study following a hearing held by the Special Committee on Aging just before Super Tuesday in 2008. The hearing focused on older voters and the various barriers they face in exercising their right to vote, covering issues of poll accessibility, voting within long-term care settings, and on-going concerns that Voter ID laws can disproportionately disenfranchise seniors. Older individuals historically represent a politically-active group, particularly during primary elections which typically attract a lower level of voter turnout.  
 
The report was originally requested jointly by the following:
 
  • Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI), Chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging
  • Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Committee Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP)
  • Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Chairman of the Senate Rules Committee
  • Bob Bennett (R-UT), Ranking Member of the Senate Rules Committee
  • Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), then-Chairman of the Senate Rules Committee (at time of report request)
  • Ted Kennedy (D-MA), then-Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP)
  • Senator Mel Martinez (R-FL)
 
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The GAO report can be found here: http://www.aging.senate.gov/letters/gaooldervoterstudy2.pdf