WASHINGTON (AP) — Despite high-profile promises over the past 25 years, many disabled Americans still are unable to fully participate in their democracy.
Advocates say they field complaints from around the country from disabled people who have problems getting into polling places or can't independently and privately cast their votes. T.K. Small, who doesn't have the use of his hands because of a neuromuscular disorder, said a 2002 law mandating access to voting for the disabled feels like a broken promise.
"My right has been completely frustrated," said Small, 44, a New York attorney who finally cast an absentee ballot on Election Day after workers at two separate precincts in his Brooklyn neighborhood were unable to work the voting machines equipped for the disabled.
New data backs up the complaints from voters like Small.
A Government Accountability Office report to be released Wednesday found that in last November's historic election, nearly one-third of polling places failed to accommodate voters in wheelchairs. Twenty-three percent had machines for the disabled that offered less privacy than offered to others — some even positioned in a way that other people could see how they were voting.
The study of 730 polling places in 31 states said improvements have been made since the agency's last similar survey in 2000. But it found that 73 percent of polling places had some sort of impediment, such as narrow doorways or steep curbs, that might impede access to the voting area for people with disabilities. Nearly half of those sites offered curbside voting as an alternative.
"We are a far cry from where we need to be," said Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, who requested the report. He said in a statement he would work with the Justice Department, which has jurisdiction to enforce federal election laws, to seek improvements.
In 1984, Congress passed a law requiring states to make polling places more accessible to the elderly and disabled. The issue was addressed again in the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act. The issue was addressed again in the 2002 Help America Vote Act, and it came with money — at least $54 million has been given to help states implement it.
"When problems arise in the administration of elections, we have a responsibility to fix them," President George W. Bush said at the time. An author of the law, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., called it "nothing less than the first civil rights legislation of the 21st century."
But seven years later, some local jurisdictions refuse to move polling places, arguing that voters won't know where to vote or that there's no place in the jurisdiction that meets the disability access requirement, said Lee Page, associate advocacy director at Paralyzed Veterans of America.
That leaves disabled voters the option of having the ballot brought out of the polling place to them, being reassigned to a different jurisdiction, or voting absentee, Lee said.
"You want to vote with everyone else at your jurisdiction because it's ... part of the community," Page said. "To find barriers in this simple issue is really disheartening, truthfully," Page said.
The issue is expected to take on greater prominence as baby boomers age and become less mobile. In last year's election, about 16 percent of voters were 65 and older. By 2040, it is anticipated that 40 percent of all voters will be at least 65.
Today, an estimated 15 percent of Americans have some sort of disability.
Jim Dickson, an advocate at the American Association of People With Disabilities, said there's been an increase in the number of polling places that offer voting machines usable by the disabled. But that doesn't guarantee they're being used, he said.
"This problem of poll workers not wanting voters to use the accessible machine, not knowing how to set the machine up, in our election incident collection, that was the biggest single problem faced by people with disabilities," Dickson said.
Rick Birge, 55, of Dardanelle, Ark., a Vietnam veteran who lost his left leg and right foot in a truck explosion after his military service, said he's benefited from the law change.
In some past elections, Birge said he avoided voting altogether because it was difficult to get in and out. But he said his voting polling place in recent years moved from a courthouse to a civic center, and he had no problems voting in November.
"If people have trouble getting into the building, they'll actually come out and get you here," said Birge, an officer in the veterans group AMVETS. "They've changed a lot of things for people like us."
Curtis Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, said he hopes the new government findings will bring about additional improvements so that others can witness the changes that Birge has seen.
"We thought we'd turned the corner with the (Help America Vote Act) bill because it has really good language in there about mandating accessible voting, but clearly it's a pretty intractable problem that needs more work and more attention," said Decker, whose organization assists states in complying with the law.
On the Net:
• Center for Accessible Living, Inc.: http://calky.org/
• Senate Special Committee on Aging: http://aging.senate.gov/
• U.S. Election Assistance Commission: http://www.eac.gov/
• Paralyzed Veterans of America: http://www.pva.org/
• National Disability Rights Network: http://www.napas.org/
• American Association of People with Disabilities: http://www.aapd.com/