In 1999, Wis. Stat. 5.25(4)(d) was amended to require the state elections agency to submit a report on impediments to voting faced by elderly voters and voters with disabilities to the appropriate standing committees of the legislature under s. 13.172 (3). The statute also requires the Commission to consult with appropriate advocacy groups representing the elderly and disability community when preparing this report. The concept for this report originated as one of several recommendations made by the Legislative Council’s Special Committee to Review the Election Process. The Special Committee was established in 1998. This recommendation, along with several other election initiatives recommended by the Special Committee and the former State Elections Board, was enacted into law by 1999 Wisconsin Act 182.
The goal of this report is to provide information regarding the accessibility of Wisconsin polling places. This report will analyze data from the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) polling place audit program, which first began in 2009, and also provide updates on additional agency efforts designed to ensure access to the polls. These efforts include providing training and outreach materials that increase both the awareness of accessible voting options and the likelihood that these options are offered and administered in a uniform manner statewide. The polling place audit program focuses on physical accessibility of polling places, but this report will also discuss various other aspects of accessibility, including an overview of the work done by the WEC Accessibility Advisory Committee.
In accordance with its statutory mandate to consult with appropriate advocacy groups, Commission staff met regularly with the Accessibility Advisory Committee throughout 2016 to 2019 to identify issues of concern and to assist in evaluating polling place accessibility. The work of the committee is essential to the WEC’s understanding of accessible voting issues and allows the agency to partner with organizations which provide both insight and access to voters who may face barriers to participation in Wisconsin elections. This partnership increases the effectiveness and scope of public outreach efforts designed to ensure that elderly voters and voters with disabilities can participate in the electoral process. Focus was placed on prioritizing accessibility in training materials and manuals to increase awareness of the barriers faced by elderly voters and voters with disabilities.
Over the past eight years polling place audits have been conducted in the vast majority of municipalities and all 72 counties in Wisconsin. Polling place audits historically have been conducted by WEC staff and volunteers from Disability Rights Wisconsin. These on-site audits take place on Election Day and allow trained individuals to assess a polling place using a survey that outlines physical spaces an individual may need to interact while voting. Commission staff reports these findings to each surveyed municipality and uses these results to update training materials and identify areas needing improvement in the State of Wisconsin.
This report is required to cover only the last biennium (2018-2019) but will instead address the accessibility of voting for elections held during 2016-2019. This report was not published for the 2016-2017 reporting period. This report will analyze trends from the entirety of 2016-2019, but also provides separate analysis of each biennium.
Between 2016 Spring Primary and the 2019 Spring Election, there were 444 polling place audits conducted across seven elections. The audit program visited 335 municipalities in 45 counties in Wisconsin in 2016, 2018, and 2019. These audits identified 2851 total problems for an average of 6.42 problems per polling place but there was some variance in the year-by-year data. In 2016, there were 2506 problems identified at 366 polling places for an average of 6.85 problems per polling place. Whereas in 2018-19 there were 345 problems at 78 polling places for an average of 4.42 problems per polling place. The number of audits per year decreased throughout this period as federal funding designated to improve polling place accessibility was fully expended and the program transitioned to a state-funded model.
The Commission cannot yet determine whether this is a short-term fluctuation or part of a longer-term downward trend given the smaller sample size in 2018-2019 and other factors, but it is a result that warrants attention as well as monitoring going forward. This downward trend is promising because it could indicate that accessibility is improving at polling places across the state as the audit program continues to raise awareness of how Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards apply to polling places.
Municipalities across the state have made improvements at their polling places in direct response to the polling place audit results. Plans of Action to resolve issues raised in the polling place audit have shown that municipalities have worked to replace inaccessible pathways, door hardware, and ramps. The supply program has helped clerks to resolve common problems, such as signage, doorbells for inaccessible doors, and cones. The program has also drawn attention to accessibility concerns that have low or no-cost remedies, such as keeping interior corridors and voting areas free from obstacles or protrusions on Election Day, clearing leaves, snow, and/or ice from accessible pathways, and improving election inspectors’ attentiveness to the perspectives of elderly voters and individuals with disabilities.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission will continue to work with policymakers, local election officials, and community organizations to assure Wisconsin’s voters that all polling places will be accessible. These improvements promoted by changes in law and increased education will help to eliminate barriers faced by Wisconsin’s elderly and voters with disabilities.