CHRISTIANSBURG — Tiffany Allison and Belle Ierardi raised their civic responsibilities another notch Tuesday when thousands of voters across Montgomery County took to the polls.
In addition to casting their ballots, Allison and Ierardi spent a chunk of Election Day visiting polling sites across the county to survey the accessibility of the venues for persons with disabilities.
Their first stop was Christiansburg Middle School, where everything went relatively smoothly save for one minor wrinkle.
Standing just outside the poll’s entrance, Allison pointed to a door button located on a wall behind a bench and a garbage can.
“If I’m in a wheelchair, how am I going to get them to press the button?” Allison asked.
Ierardi noted that detail on one of several checklists she dutifully scribbled onto as she and Allison walked past voting booths and examined doors and the curbs leading to the entrances.
Allison said the button obstructions she saw at Christiansburg Middle weren’t egregious as the polling place was technically accessible to even a person with a disability. But she said it can be difficult for a person without mobility challenges to truly see all the potential accessibility issues.
“You don’t think about that unless you’re in a wheelchair and have to get around,” Allison said.
Allison and Ierardi, each of whom work with the Christiansburg-based New River Valley Disability Resource Center, were among numerous volunteers Tuesday who signed up to survey accessibility at polling places across the state.
The effort was organized by the Richmond-based disAbility Law Center of Virginia, which initiated a similar exercise in March 2016.
The Law Center’s election time initiative is part of efforts to help enforce the Help America Vote Act, a law passed in 2002 that made reforms to the voting process. Among those reforms is ensuring that individuals with disabilities can fully participate in the electoral process.
“Part of the Help America Vote Act is that Congress created a mandate that all polling places should be accessible to people with disabilities, and they provided additional funding to make those places more accessible,” Colleen Miller, the Law Center’s executive director, said.
The law paved the way for more funding to cover advocacy, which would follow up and ensure that the accessibility improvements were actually made, Miller said.
For their surveys, volunteers such as Allison and Ierardi relied on the conditions set under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a historic law that enacted sweeping policy reforms to much better aid persons with disabilities.
Among the most important of those reforms were mandatory access improvements to buildings constructed after the law’s passage.
From a very broad perspective, the law doesn’t apply to buildings older than the law itself unless alterations that affect usability are made to those structures. However, not all buildings undergoing modifications have to comply as the law doesn’t consider maintenance such as re-roofing, painting, wallpapering, asbestos removal and electrical and mechanical changes as alterations that affect usability.
Montgomery County Electoral Board Secretary Carroll D. Williams welcomes the Law Center’s work.
“While we in Montgomery County are quite careful to select facilities that meet ADA standards, I can imagine some localities across the country are not as diligent,” Williams wrote in an email. “While it can at times be hard to find facilities which are ADA compliant, election officials should make every attempt to do so. The disAbility Law Center can bring attention to situations where improvements should be made.”
Volunteers for the recent polling place surveys focused on features such as accessible parking, the existence of ramps, the paths of travel to the voting rooms and the availability of curbside voting.
Specific features that drew some scrutiny from Allison and Ierardi included narrow entrances, hallway obstructions and the absence of some door buttons. They also took some issue with the adequacy of curbside voting assistance at a few sites.
While the two local volunteers did note small issues during their visits to some Christiansburg polling places Tuesday morning, they said that doesn’t necessarily mean those issues will officially be reported as clear accessibility violations.
Allison pointed to the absence of door buttons at some polling entrances as an example. She said the absence of door buttons doesn’t mean that a polling place is inaccessible. But she said the issue can still create challenges.
“Do they need buttons to make it fully accessible? Yeah,” she said. “But can they get away with it? Yeah.”
While The Roanoke Times was unable to remain with Allison and Ierardi for the entirety of surveying Tuesday, a previous report suggests no serious accessibility issues surfaced when some of Montgomery County’s polling sites were visited in 2016.
“Montgomery County did pretty well with the sample we selected back then,” Miller wrote in an email in which she shared the 2016 report. “Since then, however, we have had an individual complaint about access, which I think we have resolved.”
Other localities across the state, however, did receive scrutiny.
“Significant barriers” to voting were identified in 49 of the 202 polling places surveyed in 2016, according to the document Miller provided.
Miller said there were some reasons for those issues.
“Some precincts seem to be unaware of the requirements, and in that kind of situation, it’s just a matter of education,” she said. “Some polling places tell us it’s because of a lack of resources.
“For example, in making curbside voting available to people who can’t get inside the building, some of the local precincts will tell us they don’t have enough staff to provide curbside voting.”
The Law Center, which is staffed by several attorneys and professionals from other fields such as social work and education, is highly proactive in addressing the issues, Miller said.
“Our general approach is we try to work directly with that local jurisdiction to resolve the issue first,” Miller said. “Because there will be a series of local elections coming, that’s our first priority, to try to resolve the issue with the local jurisdiction as quickly as we can.”
Miller said that means trying to resolve the problem before the report even goes out.
“We have a much higher interest in making sure voting is accessible, rather than embarrassing the jurisdictions,” she said. “Frankly, some of those issues we’ll learn early enough to maybe be able to resolve tomorrow.”
Miller provided no definite date for when the recent survey’s report will be completed, but she said she expects that document to be available in about a month or so.