Over the last year, we have been quietly making our way across the state to doublecheck accessibility ahead of the November General Election.
Our work has included:
- surveys of every single county election website to make sure it was usable for people who are blind or have low vision,
- in-person tours of the 30 largest counties’ election offices to identify any physical barriers for people who use wheelchairs, and
- ongoing collaboration with the Nebraska Secretary of State’s office to educate local voting officials.
When we have found anything that was a problem for people using screen readers or a physical layout that made access difficult, we have reached out to the county officials and provided them with an explanation of the problem and a clear roadmap for how to fix it. We are proud to report that our requests for changes have been met with good will and an eagerness to make the voting process work for every Nebraskan.
Sometimes people dismiss ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements as merely bureaucratic red tape, but the law exists for a reason. If a polling site only has stairs to enter a building, and no ramp, then many voters will literally be shut out of the democratic process. If the parking area has broken concrete or gravel, anyone who uses a wheelchair, or a walker will grind to a halt on their way to vote. If poll workers do not know how to turn on and operate the voting machine, a voter who is blind will not be able to cast their vote privately and securely. Whether a voter is temporarily using crutches from a softball injury, was born with the need for assistive technology, or now uses a walker due to age, the ADA ensures they all can exercise the right to vote without barriers.
At Disability Rights Nebraska, ADA accessibility on voting day has been among our concerns for the last decade. Volunteers and staff of our organization, along with coalition partners, have conducted surveys of polling places to see whether they meet the legal requirements for physical accessibility. In 2020, we collected our findings and presented them to state and county election officials to illustrate the most common polling place barriers. In the neighborly spirit of Nebraskans, our concerns were met with an attitude of openness. Secretary of State Robert Evnen and county election officials listened and made changes.
Every year, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission holds a National Clearinghouse contest for accomplishments in improving the voting process. This year they chose the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office as a “Clearie” winner in recognition of their effort to make elections accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It is an honor for Nebraska’s work to be recognized across the whole country. Since Nebraska has placed a new Express Vote universal voting machine in every polling place to replace the older, more cumbersome AutoMark machines, every voter should have the ability to vote efficiently and privately.
The results of these efforts have already created a better voting process that serves everyone. The 2020 primary and general elections shattered voting turnout records despite the pandemic, with about 80% of Nebraska voters using the well-advertised and well-managed mail voting option. In this year’s election cycle, we anticipate there may still be places where people see an ADA issue, and we urge them to reach out to us so we can help fix the problem. You can find answers to your questions about voting and disability, along with a polling place survey form in English and Spanish on our Voting Resources page. From leadership by state officials, to the hard work by county poll workers, to each of us acting as a watchdog as we cast our own vote, we can reach the goal of inclusive, accessible elections for all in Nebraska. That definitely deserves an award.
Amy Miller is a staff attorney with Disability Rights Nebraska where she works on a number of issues including monitoring conditions at facilities where people with disabilities reside and voting rights.