This November, for the first time, every polling place in Philadelphia will be accessible to voters with physical disabilities and mobility issues.
It’s an unexpected effect — call it collateral benefit — of the city’s purchasing new touchscreen voting machines that critics argue are expensive and less secure than alternatives. The new machines can’t be carried up stairs because of their size and weight.
As a result, city elections officials were forced to find polling places that allow the machines to be wheeled up ramps. And if the machines get ramps, so do voters in wheelchairs, or on crutches, or with other mobility and balance issues.
Advocates and experts welcomed the change as a milestone for the city, regardless of the reason.
“If that’s what’s going to drive the change, I’ll take it,” said Michelle Bishop, a voting-rights specialist at National Disability Rights Network.
“That’s just what it’s like to be a person with a disability in the United States: It’s not thought of,” she said. “It wasn’t surprising to hear that the polling places were being made accessible not because voters with disabilities need it but because the people who run elections need it to get in the door.”
The city’s acting board of elections has begun approving changes to the 22 polling places that are currently categorized as altogether inaccessible. Those 22 sites cover 33 precincts, or ward divisions, serving nearly 20,000 registered voters.
It’s an important step toward equal access for voters, advocates and experts said, while noting that more needs to be done to make voting fully accessible to all.
Out of hundreds of locations where Philly voters cast ballots every election, fewer than one-third are designated by the city commissioners as fully accessible to voters with physical disabilities and mobility issues.
Nearly half are accessible on voting days with temporary modifications, such as propping doors open, removing the bar between doors, and using “threshold mats” that act as small ramps.
Other locations need to use portable ramps — which voters have reported mixed results with — and some are “substantially accessible.” Others have alternate entrances for voters who cannot easily climb stairs.
These locations are scattered across the city and include churches, schools, recreation centers, libraries, and private properties, such as offices, stores, and residences.
The difficulty in finding fully accessible polling places reflects a greater problem, Bishop said: Those locations are also inaccessible the rest of the year.
“Elections officials are doing the best they can in a complicated environment. So it’s not completely satisfying. We would rather see 100% fully accessible 365 days a year,” Bishop said. “But we do consider this progress.”
Philadelphia has a history of problems with polling-place accessibility and in 2009 settled a lawsuit by agreeing to a consent decree to improve accessibility of polling places.
Voters with disabilities also can request mail-in ballots.
The voting machines used in the city since 2002 could be folded up and carried up steps.
Not so with the new system, said Nick Custodio, deputy city commissioner: “It is not meant to be carried or hoisted, it is meant to be wheeled.”
Suddenly, something had to be done about those polling places that have been inaccessible.
“It’s terrible. We’re approaching the 30th anniversary of the ADA and the city’s just now getting around to some of the access issues that they should have been planning for back in 1990,” said Thomas H. Earle, head of Liberty Resources, the support and advocacy group that is the Philadelphia region’s Center for Independent Living.
Custodio acknowledged that the polling places could have been moved earlier but said they did not need to be.
“Accessibility has been used as a major criterion for polling place selection,” he said, “but there are other criteria that the consent decree allowed for determining if a polling place could be ‘reasonably relocated.’ ”
Every step toward full accessibility of polling places matters, advocates and experts said, because it affects voters’ experiences — and, thus, turnout.
People with disabilities register and vote at lower rates than voters without disabilities, and a significant share cite their disability as the reason for not voting.
Some voters report feeling as if the spotlight is on them when they face inaccessible polling places or request help from poll workers. That can be embarrassing or even intimidating, Bishop said. And voters with disabilities often have to take the time and energy to figure out accessibility before deciding whether they can or should vote.
“Voters with disabilities should not have to jump through extra rings of fire to get to cast their vote,” she said.
Earle said he hoped the city would continue to improve — “we want the polling places to be accessible as possible” — and allow all voters the same, full access to casting a ballot.
City buildings such as libraries are often used as polling places, and mayoral spokesperson Lauren Cox said the administration is working on making all city buildings fully accessible. An audit of ADA compliance is ongoing and a plan is expected next year for improving access to public buildings.
In the short run, she said, "one of the easiest ways to reduce barriers for those with physical disabilities and mobility issues is to increase awareness and education,” giving the examples of notifying voters with disabilities of their polling place locations so they “can go to the facility to assess any potential difficulties” and letting them know about mail-in ballots.