Wisconsin’s state and local election officials are entrusted with the important responsibility of ensuring elections are conducted in a fair and impartial manner that engenders confidence in the integrity of the process. A key element in developing and maintaining that public trust is to make the election process accessible to all participants. This requires working with the entities that provide polling places to eliminate physical barriers to voting. It also means acquiring voting equipment that enables all citizens to cast an independent and secret ballot in a dignified manner, and providing information that enables all citizens to fully participate in the election process.
The purpose of this report by the Government Accountability Board (“Board” or “G.A.B.”) is to describe impediments to voting encountered by elderly voters and voters with disabilities who seek to participate in elections conducted in the State of Wisconsin. This biennial report to the Legislature is required by §5.25(4)(d), Wisconsin Statutes. 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 Government Accountability Board is required to consult with appropriate advocacy groups representing the elderly and disabled populations in the preparation of this report. Board staff met regularly with the Accessibility Advisory Committee in 2014 and 2015 to identify issues of concern with the disability community and to assist in evaluating polling place accessibility. The Committee partnered with the agency to increase the effectiveness and scope of public outreach efforts designed to ensure that elderly voters and voters with disabilities can participate in the electoral process. Particular focus was paid to voters who reside in residential care facilities or nursing homes with informational packets provided to these facilities to confirm that both facility staff and residents understand the voting process. The Committee also partnered with the Board to create training materials for local election officials and poll workers that focused on the importance of accessible polling places.
During this reporting period, 2014-2015, Board staff focused on conducting on-site compliance reviews of polling places and updating municipal clerk training resources to incorporate accessibility-related materials. Over the course of seven elections, 808 on-site reviews were conducted by Board staff or representatives of the agency. Board staff reported results from these on-site reviews to each municipality and provided guidance and resources to facilitate compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA).
As noted in the previous biennial report, the Board’s accessibility audit program has been recognized as a model for other states to emulate. In January 2014, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration released a report that addressed common challenges faced by voters and local election officials across the nation and identified best practices to remedy these problems (PCEA Full Report). The bipartisan committee included a recommendation in their report that “states should survey and audit polling places to determine their accessibility,” and cited the G.A.B. audit program as a “model.” The report also recognized the Polling Place Accessibility Survey used to conduct all audits as a comprehensive tool for local election officials.
To accurately assess polling place accessibility in Wisconsin, Board staff continued a program of on-site visits that utilized the Polling Place Accessibility Survey as the foundation for an aggressive schedule of site audits. This survey was updated and reorganized in 2014 in coordination with representatives of disability advocacy groups. The survey is comprehensive and documents the degree of access to a polling place, including conditions related to the site’s parking area, entrance, the actual voting area, and the exit. The Board’s initiative is consistent with its responsibility, pursuant to §5.25(4)(a), Wis. Stats., to “ensure that the voting system used at each polling place will permit all individuals with disabilities to vote without the need for assistance and with the same degree of privacy that is accorded to nondisabled electors voting at the same polling place.”
At the time of this report, polling place accessibility audits have been conducted in 1,507 of Wisconsin’s 1,853 municipalities, in all 72 counties in the state. The results of the audits from the 2014-2015 biennium have identified 1,652 findings that are considered high severity, meaning that these problems represent a barrier that, in and of itself, would be likely to prevent a voter with a disability from entering a polling place and casting a ballot privately and independently. In addition to those high severity findings, auditors have also reported 924 medium severity issues and 1,394 low severity issues, or conditions that add extra burdens to voting that are not faced by voters without disabilities. On average, audits conducted during this period identified 4.9 accessibility issues at each polling place to be addressed by the municipality, with over 40 percent of the problems able to be resolved by posting required election notices and marking accessible entrances.
In an effort to facilitate compliance with polling place accessibility standards, Board staff has implemented a grant program that provides accessibility-related materials and tools to municipalities. These supplies were purchased with federal funds provided through HAVA and are sent to requesting municipalities at no cost. To date, the G.A.B. has sent out 2,146 polling place accessibility supplies to 471 municipalities.
The Government Accountability Board will continue to work with the State’s policymakers and local election officials to assure Wisconsin’s voters that all polling places will be physically accessible. These improvements, promoted by changes in law, federal funding, and increased education, will move the State of Wisconsin toward eliminating all impediments faced by elderly and disabled voters.