State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha presents legislation that would require an audit of polling places, the Department of Motor Vehicles and other offices for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act on Wednesday, March 8, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — Though talk of election audits has become more frequent in the past few years, a legislative proposal would require a different kind of audit: checking for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Legislative Bill 770, proposed by State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha, would require the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office to audit the Department of Motor Vehicles, polling places and the offices for county clerks and county commissioners to ensure ADA compliance.
The audits would begin in 2025 and be conducted every five years after.
“While the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, we are still trying to bring all facilities into compliance,” Cavanaugh told the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
The Secretary of State’s Office would provide its findings and any recommendations to the Government Committee and the Governor’s Office after each audit.
A tool and path forward
Edison McDonald with The Arc of Nebraska, which advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said he had testified multiple times in the past five years to the committee regarding continued issues with access to voting.
Some issues include whether doors to polling places can be opened without grasping, whether parking spaces are accessible, how wide entrances are for wheelchairs and whether the locations have safe lighting.
“This bill helps to provide a tool and a pathway to help ensure that we are regularly assessing this process,” McDonald said.
The proposal includes a fiscal note of about $4 million, which was derived from an engineering firm that specializes in ADA compliance at the recommendation of the state ADA coordinator. Additional costs, such as any changes that may be required, were not included in the estimate.
Cavanaugh said it was unclear to her why the audits would cost as much as $4 million and said she is working with the Secretary of State’s Office for clarification.
Engaging in the democratic process
Heidi Uhing, public policy director for Civic Nebraska, noted that Nebraska offers the option to vote by mail, a method many Nebraskans with disabilities rely on.
Some proposals in the Legislature this year, however, would restrict or end that voting option for most Nebraskans.
But Uhing said mail-in balloting cannot take the place of voting in person.
“Any alternate method of voting must offer voters with disabilities an equally effective opportunity to cast their votes in person,” Uhing said.
Arlo Hettle, grassroots advocacy coordinator for Nebraska Civic Engagement Table, said temporary or long-term changes could be made at little or no cost.
Hubs of civic society
Larry Storer of Omaha said ensuring ADA compliance would also ensure all people have the chance to vote. He also brought up concerns over election tampering.
He said that though Secretary of State Bob Evnen says Nebraska elections are secure, blocking anyone with disabilities from voting could change the outcome of an election in smaller cities or counties.
McDonald said that an audit for polling places — which often include churches, schools and community centers — would improve lives generally.
“They’re the hubs in which we allow people with disabilities and people in general to communicate and to congregate and have discussions and engage in our civic society,” McDonald said.
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