City blows deadline to make all polling places accessible, deeply frustrating disabled voters 30 years after ADA became law

The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners was ordered to make every polling place compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act nearly six years ago, but it still hasn’t done so.

A voter enters a North Side polling place considered accessible to people with disabilities for the April runoff election in 2019.
A voter enters a North Side polling place considered accessible to people with disabilities for the April runoff election in 2019. Victor Hilitski / Chicago Sun-Times
A voter enters a North Side polling place considered accessible to people with disabilities for the April runoff election in 2019.
A voter enters a North Side polling place considered accessible to people with disabilities for the April runoff election in 2019. Victor Hilitski / Chicago Sun-Times

City blows deadline to make all polling places accessible, deeply frustrating disabled voters 30 years after ADA became law

The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners was ordered to make every polling place compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act nearly six years ago, but it still hasn’t done so.

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Chicagoans checking where to vote on Election Day may have been surprised to find that fewer than 10% of the city’s polling places were marked as accessible for people with disabilities — and a third of the city’s 50 wards had no sites considered compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners admits they have not met a deadline arising from a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that required the city to make every voting location fully accessible to people with disabilities for this past election — despite receiving a four-year extension.

“Under our agreement with the Department of Justice, we’re not at what our goal is,” said Max Bever, the board’s director of public information, “It won’t be completely equitable until that happens.”

But despite that admission, Bever insists the majority of polling places are accessible to people with disabilities, saying the issue is in how the information is reported. If a site isn’t fully ADA-compliant, it won’t be listed as accessible, something the board plans to change ahead of February’s municipal elections.

“The vast majority [of Chicago’s polling places] are still usable for people with disabilities,” Bever said, noting temporary ramps and boards on sidewalk cracks are often used.

A number of issues can prevent a site from being considered ADA-compliant, including stairs, no reserved parking near the entrance or a lack of bathrooms, among other things. The federal act covers both physical and mental disabilities.

Bever said while the board was compiling data for this year’s election sites, officials were “quite alarmed” once they realized how few were listed as compliant. The issue hadn’t come up during preparations for early voting, as all 52 early voting sites are listed as “fully ADA-compliant.”

Since then, the board has been working to split polling places into three categories ahead of the February elections: “fully ADA-compliant, usable for voters with disabilities and inaccessible to voters with disabilities.”

“We know we need to report this information better moving forward,” Bever said. “We realized there was a lot more complexity there.”

But the planned changes aren’t enough, according to some disability advocates.

Robin Jones, the director of Great Lakes ADA, a University of Illinois Chicago program acting as a resource for Midwesterners with disabilities, said more information needs to be provided given the broad spectrum of mental and physical disabilities.

“‘Accessible’ is sort of a catch-all term, but it doesn’t give me anything in regards to what to expect,” Jones said. “The more information you provide people about accessible elements, the better. … Give me what the features are.”

Jones argues it would be better to follow the model of what is required of hotels under the ADA, where lodging facilities have to identify accessibility options or issues so anyone with a disability can determine for themselves if the place is a fit for them.

Bever said the board has this information, but there “isn’t room” for every detail on the online list. He said the board will provide details on individual polling places to anyone who calls them.

The issue is “out of [the board’s]” control given they don’t own any property but largely rely on property owned by the city or state for Election Day, Bever said. He did say that more than 400 buildings used as polling sites are undergoing construction to become more accessible.

Those changes come in the wake of the February 2016 investigation by the Justice Department into whether Chicago polling places were “ADA-compliant.” That led to a 2017 settlement that required the city to make every voting site accessible to people with disabilities before the November 2018 elections, though the deadline was later extended to November 2022.

With 153 sites left to be surveyed ahead of the Feb. 28 municipal election, 40 have already been found to have steps at the entrances or on the way to polling places, while 756 have been cleared as “accessible to most voters with disabilities,” according to a survey done by Equip for Equality, a Chicago-based, federally funded organization the city hired after the settlement.

“We don’t want to be using any buildings that present any ADA issues, but given where a lot of buildings are at in Chicago, we’re still sort of at this halfway point,” Bever said, adding the board won’t be adding any new sites that aren’t fully ADA-compliant.

If a building isn’t accessible for a person with disabilities, options include mail-in voting, Bever said. Early voting is another option — although Jones contends that transportation is still an issue with just 52 early voting locations citywide, even if they’re all ADA-compliant.

And voters with disabilities should not be denied the right to vote in person on Election Day if they choose to do so, she said.

“One could say they’re providing more options now, [but] the fact is that people with disabilities don’t have the same access as people without disabilities,” Jones said.

With more than three decades since the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law and nearly six years since the Justice Department settlement, Jones said it’s “very frustrating” that the city is still missing the mark.

“We have a long way to go still,” she said.