Survey notes accessibility problems for Richland Co. voters with disabilities

dhinshaw@thestate.comDecember 11, 2013 

FILE PHOTOGRAPH

When Richland County voter Dori Tempio went to cast her ballot in November’s library referendum, a poll worker held the voting machine on her lap.

She asked for privacy.

He turned his head.

“The person could see what I was voting,” said Tempio, 43, who uses a wheelchair. “Other people walking by could see what I was voting. ... That makes you somewhat uncomfortable.”

Tempio said she considers voting to be a sacred right; she has voted in every election since she turned 18.

But a survey of Richland County precincts by Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, Inc., found many residents with disabilities faced barriers when trying to exercise their right to vote Nov. 5. The survey identified a lack of accessible ballots as the top issue, affecting 63 percent of Richland County precincts.

A lack of handicapped parking spaces, poor signage, a lack of poll workers at curbside and no machines provided for the visually impaired were among the issues cited in the report released Monday.

While it’s a statewide problem, the county shares responsibility for training poll workers.

For its first survey of Richland County, Protection and Advocacy visited 69 of the 73 precincts.

“Voting isn’t a right, it’s the right – it’s the right that everybody should have, and it’s something people with disabilities don’t always have,” said Vicki McGahee, state coordinator for Protection and Advocacy for Voting Access.

Chris Whitmire, a spokesman for the S.C. Election Commission, said accessible ballots have been required in South Carolina since 2004 – but only for the election of federal offices.

Each precinct has a machine that can be converted to a machine with a jack and headphones to access an audio ballot, Whitmire said. But recording a ballot for each municipal election and referendum is time-consuming – and optional.

Howard Jackson, director of the Richland County Elections & Voter Registration Office, said he wants the county to begin providing audio ballots for all elections. He’ll be taking that proposal to his board soon for consideration, he said.

“Right now, we’re meeting the letter of the law,” Jackson said. “However, there’s more we could do.”

The new elections director said he began an initiative in November requiring a poll worker to serve as a “greeter” at each precinct responsible for keeping an eye out for people pulling up outside to vote curbside.

Both he and Whitmire said their offices continue to work with Protection and Advocacy to improve poll worker training and materials used by people with disabilities.

McGahee said Protection and Advocacy conducted a statewide survey in November 2012, followed by a September 2013 survey of Charleston County precincts. The results in Richland County were similar, she said.

She did not know the number of local people affected but said that, nationally, 35 million people of voting age have disabilities – and 14 million of them are not registered to vote.

“The disability community is huge,” she said. “It’s the largest minority community that’s not voting.”

In Tempio’s case, the state’s Whitmire said, the poll worker should have placed the voting machine on a table for her use.

Tempio said she’s seen voters with disabilities endure indignities that resulted in their leaving without casting a ballot or trudging into a precinct pulling an oxygen machine because no one came to their car to assist them.

“Individuals with disabilities want to be empowered to be independent,” she said, “and part of independence is having the same opportunities that everyone else does.”

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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