Newton County faulted on voting site accessibility

In this file photo stickers for early voters sit in a container Friday during early voting in the primary election at the Benton County clerk's office in Bentonville. 
 (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Ben Goff)
In this file photo stickers for early voters sit in a container Friday during early voting in the primary election at the Benton County clerk's office in Bentonville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Ben Goff)

None of Newton County's polling places are accessible to voters with disabilities, according to the federal government.

But the county is going to do something about that.

"We'll get it fixed," said Donnie Davis, the county clerk. "It'll cost a few bucks, but we'll get it fixed."

The county's 11 polling centers will be made handicapped accessible by the first election of 2022, Davis said.

The U.S. Department of Justice sent out a news release Wednesday saying a settlement had been reached with Newton County under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

During election day on March 3, 2020, and early voting the previous day, inspectors from the federal government surveyed the county courthouse in Jasper, used during early voting, and all 18 of the county's polling places.

"All of the polling places surveyed contained architectural barriers that rendered the facilities inaccessible to voters with disabilities, such as a lack of accessible parking areas and accessible routes due to gravel and grass ground surfaces; excessively sloped ramps, some without handrails and edge protection; numerous gaps and level changes along exterior routes; and protruding objects," according to the settlement.

Also, there was a lack of access to working voting machines at all polling places, according to the settlement.

Davis said federal inspectors also determined that a wheelchair ramp at the county courthouse was too steep. He said they checked it with a level.

Davis said the county has consolidated the 18 polling places down to 11 "polling centers," and voters can vote at any of them instead of having to use one near their home. But none of those polling centers is accessible to people with disabilities, according to the Justice Department.

Newton County, population 8,330, is in the Boston Mountains section of the Ozark Plateau.

Among the 11 polling centers that were used in the past and may be used in the future are the Low Gap Church, built in 1939; the Old Nursing Home in Jasper; and fire departments in Ponca, Parthenon and Mt. Judea.

Davis said the buildings need to be made handicapped accessible, but the county didn't have the money and the only complaint he has heard in his 16 years as county clerk was more than a decade ago.

Davis said the county will have to pour concrete slabs at many of the polling centers so that wheelchairs can be offloaded onto concrete instead of dirt, grass or gravel.

Davis said the county got new voting machines in 2019, and he thought the March 2020 election went well, even with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Newton County no longer has an election coordinator. Davis said the money for that position will be used for an Americans with Disabilities Act compliance officer instead. That will fulfill one of the federal government's requirements.

"When the pandemic hit, we had layoffs and all this and that," Davis said. "I told the coordinator we could no longer pay him either. He was just on contract. When you've got other employees laid off, you can't hardly keep anybody on contract."

The Newton County settlement is part of the Justice Department's Americans with Disabilities Act Voting Initiative, which focuses on protecting the voting rights of people with disabilities, according to the news release.

"A hallmark of the ADA Voting Initiative is its collaboration with jurisdictions to increase accessibility at polling places," according to the release. "Through this initiative, the Department of Justice has surveyed over 2,400 polling places and increased polling place accessibility in over 50 jurisdictions, including St. Louis; Harris County, Texas; Lackawanna County, Pa.; and Anderson County, S.C."

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