Election Protection at Work: Improving Voting Access for People With Disabilities
Our Election Protection team often says that if you have any issues voting, you should call 866-OUR-VOTE. But how does a phone call help improve access to the ballot? Well, let me tell you a story about how we improved voting access for voters with disabilities in Texas’ 4th largest county.
On October 15, 2020, it was Early Voting in Texas. An Election Protection field volunteer named Joe was driving around San Antonio, checking out polling places. Joe was looking out for long lines, disability accessibility, and other forms of voter suppression to report to the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline. As Joe drove from poll to poll, he noticed voters with walkers and canes waiting in long lines, a lack of ramps leading up to the polling place door, and even one voter who fainted while waiting to vote. He also noticed that there was not a single polling place in Bexar County with a sign outside offering curbside voting.
Since 1999, the state of Texas has required every polling place to offer curbside voting. Curbside voting allows a voter to cast a ballot from their car if that voter “is physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.” Texas counties usually post signs outside of each polling place to tell curbside voters how to notify a poll worker to bring the portable voting machine to the curb so they can vote. The Texas Secretary of State even provides multiple types of approved signs to every county… because if you say you offer curbside voting, but you don’t tell people how to access it, do you really have curbside voting? Or do you just have a bunch of voters with disabilities sitting in their cars, hoping that eventually someone will come out and let them vote?
Joe had the same thought, so he reported the issue to the Election Protection Hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE. Lawyers Committee’s hotline volunteers escalated it to TCRP’s legal volunteers. A lawyer named Amanda called Bexar County to ask why there were no signs outside to give curbside voting instructions. An Bexar Elections employee told Amanda (incorrectly) that the county did not have to put up signs. The employee said that, if we wanted curbside signage so much, we should put them up ourselves.
So we did! We printed signs ourselves (in English and Spanish), and our field volunteers posted them at 20 high-traffic polling places across San Antonio during Early Voting.
BREAKING: We've received many reports about Bexar County’s lack of curbside voting signage, which has the same effect as denying curbside voting entirely. This is unlawful We told the County & they passed the buck, telling us to put up our own signs if we wanted them. So we did. pic.twitter.com/XAykohTsk5 — Texas Civil Rights Project (@TXCivilRights) October 21, 2020
As helpful as this was, Bexar County would have 302 polling places on Election Day. TCRP could help at a few of them, but we didn’t have the resources that Bexar County had. Also, crucially: we’re not the agency assigned to run Bexar County Elections! That’s the job of the Bexar County Elections Department!
We decided to seek a more permanent solution. TCRP joined up with the Coalitions of Texans with Disabilities to send a demand letter to Bexar County, notifying them that the lack of curbside signage violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Texas Election Code, and guidance from the Texas Secretary of State. TCRP attorneys also reached out to the Secretary of State, who agreed to contact Texas counties and remind them to post the curbside signage that the SOS provides.
When Bexar County Elections failed to respond to our demand letter, we went to court! TCRP asked for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) against the county for their continued failure to put up signs telling voters how to access curbside voting. The District Court granted our request. Judge David A. Canales ordered Bexar County to post curbside voting informational signs in conspicuous places at every early voting polling location, as well as curbside signs in English and Spanish at each of its 302 polling places on Election Day.
The curbside signs, the demand letter, and the TRO were only possible because of people like y’all who chose to serve as Election Protection volunteers. In 2020, we had Joe and Amanda. This fall, you could be the one who ensures that every eligible Texan gets to exercise their right to vote.
If you want to be part of the solution in 2022, sign up to be a legal volunteer here, or a poll monitor here.
Further reading: 2020 Curbside Voting Report