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U.S. Justice Department finds Alaska discriminates against disabled voters

Iris Samuels, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska on

Published in News & Features

The Alaska Division of Elections has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by making voting inaccessible to disabled Alaskans, the U.S. Department of Justice found in a recent investigation.

The DOJ found that "Alaska discriminates on the basis of disability" in an investigation initiated in response to complaints that alleged that "accessible voting machines that would allow persons with disabilities to vote privately and independently, were either unavailable at voting sites, or if available, they did not work."

The investigation examined statewide elections held in 2022 and 2023.

The complaints that led to the investigation are in line with similar ones dating back nearly a decade. The Alaska State Commission for Human Rights sued the lieutenant governor and the Division of Elections in June 2022 after a visually impaired Anchorage voter filed a complaint with the commission alleging a lack of accessible voting options. In 2015, a visually impaired voter complained to the human rights commission after finding his local polling place lacked a voting machine that could accommodate him.

Jurisdictions across the country — including Anchorage — in recent years have rolled out voting machines that can better accommodate people with disabilities. But in Alaska's statewide elections, accessible voting machines, which are available only in select locations, are often inoperable.

"It was 32 years ago that ADA was created. Equal rights for everybody, equal accessibility for everybody, and here we are, still decades behind," said CB Brady, executive director of the Alaska Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired. "It's very important to the blind, low-vision community to have the same accessibility to place their vote as every sighted person."

The DOJ investigation found numerous violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and gave the state until July 1 to contact the department about a "voluntary solution." If the state does not take action to rectify the violations, it could face a lawsuit, according to a letter from the DOJ to Division of Elections Director Carol Beecher.

"The Division is reviewing the letter and will work with the Department of Justice to understand their concerns," Beecher said in an email. "The Division works diligently to locate facilities in every precinct that meet accessibility requirements and continues to improve its communications."

Rick Webb, a visually impaired Fairbanks resident who has long advocated for accessible voting, said in an interview Tuesday that he has learned not to vote on Election Day during statewide elections. Instead, he goes to the local Division of Elections office to receive the assistance of an experienced staffer. At polling locations on Election Day, he said, workers often don't know how to use the machines.

"I've heard horror stories. You know, people go to vote, they ask for the accessible machine. In some places, the worker is like, 'What?' They don't even have it set up," said Webb.

Webb said he hoped the investigation would ensure that poll workers in the future are trained in how to use accessible voting machines.

 

"It'd be nice for them to spend the money they need to spend to make this work," said Webb.

The investigation detailed several problems that hinder disabled voters' ability to participate in elections. For state and federal elections, the state did not provide accessible voting machines during early voting and on Election Day, despite claiming that it provides such machines. In some locations where the machines were present, they were not operational, the investigation found. In at least one polling place, the machine was "unassembled in its shipping box." In other locations, poll workers reported that they "could not operate" the accessible machines.

"Voters with disabilities from across Alaska stated that, during elections in 2020 and 2022, the accessible machines were not operational when they arrived at polling places, and, for some, poll workers were unable to make the accessible machines operational," according to the investigation.

According to the DOJ investigation, "one voter with a vision disability, after being told that no magnification device was available, required assistance to vote using a paper ballot. Another voter with disabilities who has difficulty walking, moving, writing, and talking struggled to complete the paperwork but poll workers failed to offer any assistance."

The investigation also found that the state's elections website is inaccessible for people with vision, hearing or manual disabilities. One voter with a vision disability reported she was unable to access information on her polling place.

The investigation found some of the state's absentee in-person voting and polling places were not usable by people with disabilities. A voter with disabilities that make it difficult for her to walk found their polling place for the October 2023 REAA election had a "muddy parking lot filled with standing water and a 2-inch step to get on the ramp to the entrance."

The investigation concluded that Alaska must "implement remedial measures" to ensure voting is accessible to disabled Alaskans, including by providing accessible voting systems at every in-person voting location. The state must also provide an accessible website and make polling locations accessible to disabled Alaskans, according to the investigation.

Alaska's next statewide election is the Aug. 20 primary.

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(c)2024 the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska). Visit the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska) at www.adn.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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