The recent closure of polling locations for not complying with the ADA in Georgia’s predominantly black Randolph County has stirred up voting rights advocates who fear the landmark disability rights law is being used as a tool to suppress minority voter participation nationwide. Major disability rights organizations in the state also opposed the directive because it shut down existing voting options rather than remedying the compliance issues. The elimination of polling locations was recommended by an outside consultant hired by the office of Georgia’s Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the Republican candidate for governor in the upcoming election.
Kemp raised eyebrows with a number of voter-registration and election operation changes following the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to overturn parts of the Voting Rights Act. As The New York Times reported in 2016, “Kemp, a Republican who has crusaded against what he called the threat of voter fraud, has investigated voter-registration drives by Asian American and predominantly black groups. A 2014 criminal inquiry into a group that had registered 85,000 new voters, many of them minorities, found problems with only 25 of the registrants, and no charges were filed.”
The immediate media furor over Randolph County’s plans was directed at the racial implications of shutting down seven of nine polling locations in a county with no public transportation and a population that is 61 percent African-American. Stories about the closures included quotes and perspective from the ACLU and Georgia-based organizations that fight for minority voting-rights, and rightly so. But perspective from the disability community was, and continues to be, lacking in the reporting on Randolph County. “[The media coverage] was a situation where something happened about us, without us,” says Sarah Blahovec, the disability vote organizer for the National Council on Independent Living.
ADAPT Georgia, ARC, Georgia Statewide Independent Living Council and Rev Up Georgia — the latter of which is dedicated to increasing voter participation by people with disabilities — came out unequivocally against the closures or “consolidation,” as Kemp calls it. The organizations point out that closing polling places, even ones with access issues, in a county with no public transit system, effectively shuts out many voters with disabilities. The distance to the nearest alternate polling place “makes it difficult, and possibly impossible, for voters with disabilities in that area to access alternative polling locations,” ADAPT Georgia said in a statement. “These polling place closures will disenfranchise voters with disabilities of color in particular.”
The swift backlash over the proposed closures caused the Randolph County election officials to immediately back off and fire the consultant who recommended the closures. In a meeting to decide the fate of the plan, officials took less than a minute to vote against shuttering the locations. But some activists worry that the attempted closures in Randolph County are one instance of a larger issue, as the United States Department of Justice has recently stepped up enforcement against polling locations with ADA violations in other counties across the country.
“The ADA was being weaponized in a way that would not have helped people with disabilities. … It really does set a dangerous precedent. What happens for all those other polling places that have accessibility impediments, and is this a tactic that’s going to be used more widely?” asks Blahovec. She says that NCIL is trying to engage with local CILs to make sure that, “polling places aren’t closed due to accessibility violations. That’s not the way to deal with it, obviously. We need to make sure they’re properly trying to address accessibility instead of relocating them.”
There’s no doubt that accessibility in polling locations is a major issue. The nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report examining a selection of 178 polling locations during the 2016 election and found that close to two-thirds of locations had access impediments either inside or outside of the building (65 percent and 60 percent, respectively). There are tens of thousands of polling locations that could be charged with ADA violations, but hyper-selective enforcement makes it all too easy to question motives.
In Randolph County, as well as other locations that have recently had enforcement actions brought against them, no one can find record of public complaint. If user complaints aren’t triggering the enforcements, why are officials choosing the locations they are? It’s a valid question, one for which we don’t yet have reasonable answers. At the very least, if officials are finally going to enforce the ADA, they need to listen to the disability community: Don’t shut down polling places — fix the access issues.
• “The ADA is being used to disenfranchise minority voters,” ThinkProgress.org; thinkprogress.org/ada-voter-suppression-cd7031080bfd/
• GAO Report, www.gao.gov/products/GAO-18-4