STATEMENT: Polling Sites Often Neglect Disability and Language Minority Access Requirements

Release Date: 
October 20, 2006

New York, NY — Millions of disabled and language-minority American citizens face impediments to voting because many states do not meet federal ballot and polling place access requirements, according to a new briefing paper by Demos, a national, non-partisan public policy and research center.

The Ballot Access briefing paper, which is published this week as part of Demos' Challenges to Fair Elections briefing paper series, shows that states across the U.S. are failing to live up to the promise of landmark "ballot access" legislation, such as section 203 of the Voting Rights Act and provisions of the Help America Vote Act, which require polling sites to accommodate U.S. citizens with disabilities and those who may have limited proficiency in English.

"Vast numbers of eligible voters depend on enforcement of these laws to protect their right to vote," said Brenda Wright, Managing Attorney of the National Voting Rights Institute, a partner of Demos. "Yet even as we approach the third major election of the 21st century, it is clear that we still have a long way to go in assuring that all citizens have fair ballot access."

Facts highlighted by the briefing paper include:

* Of the 56 million American citizens with disabilities, approximately 40 million are voting age. Yet a 2001 GAO study found that only 16 percent of polling places were fully accessible to people with disabilities. This is despite a federal law enacted in 1984 that requires all polling places for federal elections to be accessible to elderly voters and voters with disabilities.
* Even where polling places are accessible, citizens with disabilities may be unable to vote independently and privately, because some states have failed to comply with federal requirements to provide fully accessible voting equipment for all elections after January 1, 2006. For example, if the proper voting equipment is not available, blind voters and persons with manual disabilities must disclose their voting choices to someone who can assist them in filling out their ballots.
* The language-assistance requirements of the Voting Rights Act cover jurisdictions with over 60 million voting-age citizens, yet many citizens continue to face denial of their basic rights to language assistance in voting. In the most recent federal elections, a survey by the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund showed that 70 percent of Texas counties covered by the language-assistance requirements of the Voting Rights Act were not complying with requirements to provide election materials in Spanish. At the same time, in Texas, there are still many Mexican Americans, as well as other racial minorities, who have limited English proficiency, often as a result of educational discrimination. In 2000, the U.S. Census reported that 473,099 Latino native born citizens of voting age in Texas were limited English proficient.
* These problems extend to the East Coast as well. The U.S. Department of Justice has sued the cities of Boston, Lawrence and Springfield, Massachusetts in recent years, and is currently investigating the city of Lowell as well, because of their noncompliance with Voting Rights Act requirements for language assistance to Hispanic and Asian American citizens.
* In Boston in particular, the Vietnamese community complained of being denied the right even to cast a provisional ballot at some polling places, while Chinese community groups reported complaints that poll workers improperly coerced the ballot choices of Chinese-speaking voters. The lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice alleged that the city denied limited-English speakers the right to vote by improperly influencing, coercing, or ignoring the ballot choices of Hispanic and Asian American voters, failing to meet requirements for providing election materials translated into Spanish, and not providing enough bilingual workers at the polls. Boston entered into a consent decree requiring monitoring and compliance.
* Incidents of harassment and discrimination toward Asian American voters in New York in recent years, documented by the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund, include a Queens county poll site coordinator saying, "I'll talk to [Asian voters] the way they talk to me when I call to order Chinese food," and then saying random English phrases in a mock Chinese accent; and a Kings County poll site coordinator demonstrating how to tell "the difference between Chinese and Japanese" by slanting her eyes up and down.
*Congress enacted the language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act during the early 1970s after finding that English-only elections effectively blocked many Latino, Native American, Asian American and Alaska Native citizens from voting. The record of continuing discrimination and lack of access experienced by language minorities in U.S. elections convinced Congress this year to renew the language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act for another 25 years.

"America cannot fulfill the promise of our democracy when many of our citizens are denied the basic tools they need, and are guaranteed by law, to access the polling place or understand the ballots they will cast on Election Day," said Demos President Miles Rapoport. "We need strong, immediate enforcement of the laws that Congress has enacted to protect these rights."

To find out more about ballot access laws or other election-related issues, visit archive.demos.org to download the 2006 Challenges to Fair Election briefing paper series or Demos' Election Reform Agenda from the 2006-2007 policy briefing book, Fulfilling America's Promise.

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