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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 2011 to identify issues of concern with the disability community and to assist in evaluating polling place accessibility. The Committee did not meet in 2012 due to staff turnover and other Board priorities, but has recently been reconvened with membership expanded to representatives from 10 advocacy groups.
During this reporting period, 2011-2013, Board staff focused on conducting on-site compliance reviews of polling places and updating municipal clerk training resources to incorporate accessibility-related materials. The number of on-site reviews was increased in response to a 2007 report from the Legislative Audit Bureau that recommended the Government Accountability Board “take steps to verify the accuracy of completed surveys” conducted and submitted to the Board by municipal clerks. Over the course of 16 elections, 1,614 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).
To accurately assess polling place accessibility in Wisconsin, Board staff implemented a program of on-site visits that utilized the Polling Place Accessibility Survey (Rev. 2009) as the foundation for an aggressive schedule of site audits. This survey was updated in coordination with representatives of disability advocacy groups and was previously distributed to all municipal clerks in February 2009 for use in mandatory self-reporting of accessibility compliance for each polling place in every Wisconsin municipality. The survey documents the degree of access to a polling place, including conditions related to the site’s parking area, the actual voting area, and the exit. In response to inconsistencies in self-reported conditions and accessibility concerns identified by the Legislative Audit Bureau in 2007, Board staff implemented a program to independently assess polling place accessibility, 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 preparation of this report, polling place accessibility audits have been conducted in 921 of Wisconsin’s 1,852 municipalities, in 66 of the 72 counties in the state. The results of those audits have identified 3,786 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 2,855 medium severity issues and 3,847 low severity issues, or conditions that add extra burdens to voting that are not faced by voters without disabilities.
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 2,442 polling place accessibility supplies to 442 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.
Kevin J. Kennedy
Director and General Counsel
Wisconsin Government Accountability Board