Justice Department says Alaska is discriminating against voters with disabilities

A sign in a grassy field reads "Vote here today."
A sign directs voters to a polling location in Unalaska in 2020. (Hope McKenney/KUCB)

The U.S. Department of Justice says the Alaska Division of Elections is discriminating against voters with disabilities.

The federal agency sent the state a letter alleging multiple violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act over the past four years, at polling places and on the elections website. 

“We must advise you that, if we cannot reach a resolution, the Attorney General may initiate a lawsuit under the ADA,” the letter, from the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, says.

It reports that voters have complained about muddy parking lots, ramps that have a 2-inch step to reach and other features that hamper people using wheelchairs. Once in the polling place, the letter says voters found that voting machines meant to be accessible were often not working, or not assembled. Voters with impaired vision said audio components were unintelligible. That left some with no choice but to vote a paper ballot with the help of a poll worker, compromising the voter’s privacy and independence. 

The Justice Department included a 32-page spreadsheet listing specifics, such as parking lots that lack designated accessible spots, paths and corridors that are too steep and doors that require too much force to open. The polling locations in the spreadsheet are primarily urban and along the road system, from Fairbanks to Homer. Federal investigators found nine alleged violations at the Anchorage headquarters of the Division of Elections, mostly in the parking lot.

Elections Division Director Carol Beecher said her agency strives to find polling places in every precinct that meet ADA requirements.

“We follow the ADA checklist for polling places as closely as possible,” she said in an email. “Election supervisors personally check locations when feasible, and for more remote areas, city and tribal clerks assist by filling out a survey of a location.”

Beecher said the division will review the findings and work with the Justice Department on a resolution.

The federal letter warns that the U.S. attorney general may file a lawsuit if the issues aren’t addressed.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her atlruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Lizhere.

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