Access for Minnesota voters with disabilities generally good — but problems persist

A pile of stickers on a table in front of voting booths.
"I voted" stickers await voters inside of a polling place at Martin Luther King Community Center in St. Paul.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2019

Updated: Oct. 30, 7:55 a.m.

As Election Day approaches in Minnesota communities holding local elections this fall, attorney Justin Page recalled that a few years ago voters in one Minneapolis precinct were sent to the second floor of a library to cast their ballots.

There was just one problem: The elevator didn’t work.

Page supervises voting rights work at the Minnesota Disability Law Center, conducting extensive outreach and surveying polling places. He, and others who monitor voting access for people with disabilities, say Minnesota generally does a good job but accessibility issues persist.

Researchers Douglas Kruse and Lisa Schur at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations use census data to analyze and compare voting participation among people with and without disabilities in every state. In 2018 they found the largest voting gap — indicating more eligible disabled residents did not cast a ballot — was in Minnesota.

That gap decreased immensely in 2020, with policies that simplified absentee voting. But Kruse said “there's no magic method that works for everyone. For some people, voting by mail is great. For people with visual impairments, it’s really bad, because they can't vote confidentially.”

Minnesota Council on Disability ADA Director David Fenley said eligible voters with cognitive disabilities might be discouraged from voting. Voters who have trouble standing, or others who use wheelchairs and walkers to get around, might have a hard time navigating long lines that wind through uneven terrain, across steep curbs. And “disability parking is a big one,” Fenley said.

“There were a couple instances that I heard about in the last election where the disability parking was full of cars that did not have disability parking placards, and the election judge did not have the cars removed from there,” he said. “So potentially anybody who's driving to the polls and needed that parking, couldn't get it at that particular polling place.”

Fenley said that while barriers like these persist, Minnesota provides good general access for voters with different disabilities. Polling stations are equipped with an accessible voting machine for people with vision impairments, with many counties using a machine called the AutoMARK. Fenley said voters can ask an election official about it.

“Just say, ‘Hey, where’s your AutoMARK? I need an accessible voting machine,’ ” he advised.

In some counties, polling stations have different models of accessible voting machines, such as the OmniBallot. 

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said he prioritizes meetings with a Disability Advisory Council, to improve voting access. He’s optimistic about new developments, like more widespread absentee voting and electronic ballot transmission. And Simon said that in 2020, Minnesota added an American Sign Language hotline for voters.

At a new Minnesota-based organization called Able to Vote, Executive Director Grace Gouker Littlefield is working to connect people with voting resources. Littlefield said she wants to see more disabled voters like herself with equal access across the country — starting in her own backyard this fall.

People who need assistance finding transportation to the polls, coming up with a voting plan, or reporting an accessibility barrier can reach out to staff through a chat feature on the Able to Vote website.

“Just understand that the lives of people with disabilities can be very complex,” Littlefield said. “And this process should not be political, even though people are voting for political offices, sometimes. The process should be that in order to have the most flourishing democracy possible, one where everyone’s views are represented to their fullest capacity, everybody should be working together to make voting accessible.”

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