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Officials work to improve access for disabled voters

by Tom Sissom | July 28, 2019 at 2:22 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Mats designed for use in horse stalls will help Washington County election officials make polling places accessible to disabled voters.

Jennifer Price, the county's election coordinator, briefed the commission this month about purchases she plans to make to bring the county's 46 polling places into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Price said improved signs are needed most, but some polling places need improvements to parking lots, even if they are only temporary.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires flat, sturdy surfaces for accessible parking areas and pathways to sidewalks or building entrances. Price said she has a number of polling places with grass or gravel parking lots, many of them churches, which are normally exempt from the law's requirements but have to meet those standards when used for voting.

"We did some research, and one of the things we looked at is outdoor festivals and how they accommodated the ADA," Price said.

The solution, Price said, is to use mats to create parking areas and pathways.

"We're using these horse stall mats we get from Tractor Supply stores," Price said. "If we've got a gravel parking lot, we create a space with traffic cones and place the mats so they can park and get out of vehicles and then get to the polling place. They're flexible but heavy enough they stay in place, and they are the right width for what we need."

Price said she plans to buy 25 of the mats for about $1,000. She also plans to buy accessible parking signs and temporary stands for about $5,600. Thresholds, small ramps that fit over door frames, are also needed so voters in wheelchairs can get into some buildings.

Kim Dennison, election coordinator for Benton County, said officials may move two polling places because the locations have gravel or grass parking.

Renee Oelschlaeger, head of the Washington County Election Commission, said the commission has sought to be proactive.

"We've always been careful about doing what we can to comply with the ADA," Oelschlaeger said. "Some of our polling sites make that more difficult than others, mostly the more rural sites."

Polling places in both counties were reviewed in 2018 by representatives of Disability Rights of Arkansas, a nonprofit group that receives federal grant money to work toward Americans with Disabilities Act compliance in elections, among other issues.

The group detailed potential problems in both counties, with lack of proper signs the most common problem. Inadequate parking on gravel or grass at some rural locations was also mentioned.

Thomas Nichols, director of legal and advocacy services for the group, said representatives inspected more than 1,000 polling places in Arkansas before the 2018 elections and plans to do similar inspections again before the 2020 vote. Nichols said he is pleased with the response from both Benton and Washington counties.

"More than anything, we wanted them to be aware of the problems in time to make corrections," Nichols said.

Metro on 07/28/2019

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