DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Fewer than one in five polling places were fully accessible to voters with disabilities during the 2016 general election, a government report shows — a finding that has prompted federal officials to recommend the Justice Department adopt stricter compliance rules.
The report released Thursday by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office comes less than a week before mayoral elections in Atlanta and New York, elections for governor in New Jersey and Virginia and a special U.S. House election in Utah, and gives a window of only a year to address problems before the 2018 congressional elections.
The bottom line in the report, provided to The Associated Press in advance of its publication, is that accessibility for voters with disabilities has not kept pace with the increase in early voting that has occurred in many states since the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and the 2002 Help America Vote Act. Both early voting and the disabilities access improvements are top goals in making it easier to vote.
Instead, Republican President Donald Trump has urged action on unfounded allegations of voter fraud. More than a dozen Republican-controlled state legislatures have enacted tighter restrictions on voting this decade.
"With the increase in early voting, this research is timely. Are our guidelines and regulations and practices keeping up with the changing patterns of voting in America?" asked Wendy Underhill, elections program director for the National Council of State Legislatures.
Just 17 percent of the 178 polling places officials examined nationwide in the days leading up to last year's election, and on Election Day, were without any impediments to voters with disabilities, despite the vast majority of states reporting they'd taken adequate care before voting started.
Most of the problems were found outside the buildings where the voting was taking place, such as steep ramps, poor parking accommodations or hazardous path surfaces. The report included a photograph of a collapsed folding table laid between a street and the curb as a makeshift wheelchair ramp.
Most polling places examined had at least one voting station that was usable by people with physical disabilities.
The 2002 voting law, enacted after problems revealed during the 2000 presidential vote notably in Florida, included money to replace voting equipment. However, it did not include money to retrofit polling places for disabled voters.
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., among lawmakers who requested the study, criticized Republican officials around the country, arguing they'd pursued voter restrictions based on largely unfounded allegations of voter fraud, while needs of disabled voters were not being met.
"The debate we've had is almost totally contrary to the reality," said Casey, ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Aging. "The assertion by GOPs has been voter fraud, which they haven't proven, so we spend our time debating that which is fiction, instead of debating the impediments to voting."
Said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.: "We need to do more to restore Americans' confidence in our political system. Our first step should be making it easier for their voices to be heard on Election Day."
President Donald Trump commissioned a panel to investigate as yet unfounded claims that millions voted fraudulently last year, when Trump was elected by winning a solid majority of Electoral College votes but receiving roughly 2.9 million fewer overall votes than Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Before that, Republicans in statehouses across the country had been enacting voter identification requirements with similarly little evidence of fraud.
Since the elections of 2010, when Republicans made big gains in governorships and GOP legislatures, 15 states have enacted, or made stricter, voter identification requirements.
Opponents say the measures are aimed at giving Republicans an advantage, because those who do not have such identification are disproportionately racial and ethnic minorities, groups that are less likely to vote Republican.
In Iowa this year, the GOP-controlled Legislature passed such a measure, which was signed by Republican then-Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican. The law was signed despite the state's top elections official saying he'd been informed of only 10 improper votes out of roughly 1.6 million counted in the 2016 election.