A Conclusion of Research, but not of Curiosity

As I write this final post, I cannot help but marvel at how quickly this summer seems to have passed by, and how much information I was able to gather within the past three months. I think mentioned in my an earlier blog post about the remarkable response rate to my survey, but even then I failed to anticipate the wealth of information I would receive from such a large sample size.

The initial intent of my study was to better understand the affect the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA) has had within the community of people with disabilities, as well as examine the legislation’s strengths and weaknesses.  After conducting an in-depth analysis of the raw data, I have come to the conclusion that while HAVA  has played a large role in improving voter accessibility, better outreach efforts much take place in order to increase the electoral participation of voters with disability.

Of those surveyed, an overwhelming majority expressed knowledge of HAVA, with 99 percent of officials stating they had been aware of the Act prior to the study. Among the participants who had expressed previous awareness about HAVA, 99.67 percent stated they were also aware of its provisions for voters with disability. Furthermore, 95 percent of polling officials stated they had actually used these provisions, with 80 percent of these participants believing that HAVA had been useful in increasing voter accessibility. Very few officials found these provisions difficult to enforce, with only 10 percent of participants experiencing difficulty due to a lack of funding, 9 percent experiencing difficulty due to a lack of resources, and 7 percent experiencing difficulty due to a lack of time.

It appears that HAVA’s simple implementation has translated into confidence about the overall preparedness of polling sites for voters with disability.  Among election officials surveyed, an incredible 96 percent believe that their polling stations are accessible to voters with physical disability, and 92 percent believe that their polling workers receive adequate training to assist voters with disability. This confidence is further reflected in regard to specific aspects of each polling site. For example, when questioned about their polling locations’ architectural accessibility, 97 percent of participants stated their locations had handicap accessible parking, 95 percent had wheelchair accessible entrances and exits, and 90 percent were free of walkway hazards for voters with blindness or low vision. Furthermore, once at these polling locations, individuals with disability were able to vote in a manner best suited to their needs. Of participants, 93 percent stated their polling locations provided wheelchair accessible voting systems, and 92 percent stated their polling locations provided non-visual accessible voting systems.

These high percentages suggest that HAVA has been overwhelmingly useful in increasing voter accessibility. Yet, it appears there is still much work to be done, for despite HAVA’s positive effects, only 28 percent of election officials reported that they had witnessed a reasonable amount of voters with disabilities at the polls during the past election cycle. While great indicators of progress, improvements in voter accessibility will be nothing more than symbolic if members of the disabled community fail to reap its benefits. One possible explanation for this low turnout within the disabled community can be attributed to continuing effects of the disability gap, and an abject lack of outreach from election officials.

Having historically faced accessibility issues, many members of the disabled community have altogether ceased going to the polls despite of recent improvements, thus contributing to the disability voting gap. Hoping to break this cycle, HAVA requires that all states allocate funds for “providing individuals with disabilities…with information…about the accessibility of polling places, including outreach programs to inform the individuals about the availability of accessible polling” (Help America Vote Act, 2002). However, in comparison to HAVA’s other accessibility provisions, it appears such outreach programs have not been as widely enforced. Of those surveyed, only 51 percent of polling officials stated there were outreach programs to provide voters with information about accessible polling places. This stands in stark contrast to other HAVA accessibility provisions, which all experienced enforcement within the ninetieth percentile. Therefore, this lack of electoral outreach towards the disabled community, and the ultimate lack of voters with disabilities is an important relationship to explore in future studies.

Perhaps the disability voting gap is the result of not only a lack of accessibility, but a lack of communication, as data further suggests a disparity between officials’ individual perceptions of the disabled community, and its actual presence. Future study regarding HAVA’s impact on voter accessibility can be improved by surveying or conducting interviews with members of the disabled community whom have utilized HAVA’s provisions. This additional viewpoint could elicit greater insight, providing a comparison between election officials’ perceptions of voter accessibility, and the amount of accessibility voters with disability actually experience at the polls. By including both perspectives, researchers can further explore the communication gap between both parties, thus laying the foundation for stronger partnerships and a more inclusive democracy.

Though this marks the conclusion of this particular research project, it certainly does not mark the end of my curiosity towards this subject. Though I am uncertain if in the future I will be able to continue in this particular research, I do plan to continue my involvement with disability advocacy groups and strive for electoral reform. I thank you for allowing me to share this incredible journey with you, and wish you the best wherever life may take you.