Cook County Clerk David Orr’s office is surveying all 2,402 precincts in suburban Cook County in an effort to improve access for disabled voters.
The surveys are being conducted in anticipation of the office receiving more than $475,000 in disability access grants awarded through the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which establishes higher standards for polling place accessibility.
A portion of the federal funds will be used to increase access at some suburban polling places before the November 2 election.
“Working closely with local disability groups, we hope to remove barriers that have made it difficult for some voters to gain entry to polling places,” Orr said. “By giving more people the ability to vote, more people will do so.”
According to 2003 U.S. Census estimates, more than 973,000 of Cook County residents, or 18 percent, live with at least one disability.
Clerk staffers are scrutinizing polling sites to make sure doors open easily, entrances are level, signage is clear and outdoor surfaces are smooth. Some of the grant money will be earmarked for purchasing ramps to make entrances accessible, doorbells to alert election judges of voters who have difficulty entering a building, and plastic liners that provide voters using wheelchairs with a smooth path. In addition, information about accessibility will be provided to voters.
Orr’s office is also providing additional training for election judges to make them aware of the needs of disabled voters, including sensitivity training and how best to provide assistance. A special newsletter focusing on these issues will be sent before the election to all 12,500 election judges who serve in suburban Cook County.
By 2006, additional HAVA funds will be used to purchase new electronic voting equipment to accommodate physically disabled voters, including blind and vision-impaired voters, in every polling place. HAVA also authorizes federal money for the replacement of punch card systems, which the county expects to do in time for the March 2006 primary election.
The Clerk’s office already has several ways to make it easier for disabled and elderly voters to cast ballots, including: voting booths to accommodate voters using wheelchairs; curbside voting that enables election judges to bring portable voting units outside to voters who have difficulty gaining access to their polling places; magnifiers for voters with impaired vision; and a large stylus for those who have difficulty holding a regular stylus to punch their ballot.