Justice Department Finds Alaska Discriminated Against Disabled Voters, Violated Federal Law

An investigation conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice found that Alaska failed to comply with requirements set forth by federal law to make voting accessible for people with disabilities.

The Justice Department announced on Tuesday that Alaska discriminated against voters with disabilities by failing to provide an accessible ballot for in-person voting; selecting inaccessible polling places for federal, state and local elections; and maintaining an inaccessible election website.

“For too long, people with disabilities have been denied the fundamental rights and freedoms that citizens of our democracy possess, including the opportunity to fully participate in the voting process,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement on Tuesday.

Under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), state voting services, programs and activities are required to be accessible to individuals who have disabilities.

“The Justice Department is fully committed to enforcing the ADA to make sure that individuals with disabilities have an equal opportunity to vote, including by voting privately and independently like everyone else,” Clarke said.

An investigation in 2022 through the department’s ADA Voting Initiative was prompted by several complaints from Alaskans about accessibility issues they faced in the voting process.

Some voters reported that they couldn’t privately or independently vote because the accessible voting machines were unavailable or didn’t work. Others said that the polling places were inaccessible and that they couldn’t obtain important information about the election online because the state’s election website wasn’t accessible.

These voting barriers were detailed in the Justice Department’s investigation findings, which were outlined in a public letter of findings issued to Alaska on Monday.

Accessible machines were developed decades ago to make voting accessible to people with disabilities, according to ADA training materials for poll workers. For instance, ballot marking machines can audibly read the ballot to voters, allowing them to cast their votes privately and independently. These machines usually have tools that voters with disabilities can choose from to help them navigate the process, including a keypad, touchscreen, Braille, rocker paddles and a “sip-and-puff” accessory for air-pressure controls.

Michael Kasey, an election official in Fredericksburg, Virginia, explained in an interview with WRC-TV in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday that these specific tools allow disabled individuals to exercise their right to vote without having to disclose their choices to those helping them vote.

“Most Americans choose to keep [their choices] private, and that’s their right, so this should be extended to people with disabilities and that’s what these ballot marking machines do,” Kasey told WRC-TV.

But similar to the findings in the Justice Department’s investigation of Alaska’s voting accessibility, data shows that it is still an issue in states across the country.

Officials from the Government Accountability Office visited 167 polling places during the 2016 general election and found that only 17% were fully accessible for people with disabilities who wanted to vote in person, with the most common barriers being steep ramps, lack of signs for accessible paths to the building, gravel parking lots or lack of parking options.

Despite the increased voting access created by mail-in absentee ballots in 2020, data shows more than 11% of voters with disabilities reported having difficulty casting their ballot that year. Voting barriers have continued. Voter suppression laws that affect people with disabilities have been enacted in at least 14 states, including Georgia and Texas, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.