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Barriers to voting for people experiencing homelessness and living with disabilities

Voting stations at a polling place.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act obligatees state and local governments to provide an equal opportunity to vote to people with disabilities.

As St. Louis area residents head to the polls Tuesday, some have potential obstacles to overcome — aside from long lines.

For people experiencing homelessness, it can be difficult to register to vote. And according to disability advocacy group Paraquad, accessibility continues to be a problem at some polling places in the region.


Registering to vote in both Missouri and Illinois requires proof of address and identification through a photo ID, government document, bank statement, pay stub or utility bill — documents people living on the streets or in shelters often don’t have.

“If you don’t have a home, and you don’t have a job, then you don’t have a pay stub and you don’t have a utility bill,” said Laurie Phillips, CEO of St. Patrick Center. “We do the best we can for whatever a client actually does have to give them the proper identification so they can go to their polling place and vote.”

Phillips said there have been two voter registration drives at St. Patrick Center this year, one in the spring, and one in the summer. In all, 20 to 30 people were registered during the drives.

“The most significant barrier (to voting) for most of our clients is personal identification. But a huge part of what we do is to help people get the identification they need for many things that they have to get for themselves, including benefits or housing, to sign a lease, to get a driver’s license so they can get to their employment,” Phillips said.

Phillips said St. Patrick Center also provides people experiencing homelessness with bus passes, which they can use to get to the polls on Tuesday.

“That can be part of case management, if a case manager needs to take a client to a polling place that definitely can happen,” Phillips said. “And then we’ll link them up with other agencies or other organizations that will do polling place transportation on the day of the election.”

St. Patrick Center began operating the city-owned Biddle Housing Opportunities Center earlier this year.


After the primary election, Paraquad received feedback from St. Louis area residents with disabilities. More than 20 percent of those surveyed told Paraquad they couldn’t access their polling place.

“People with disabilities and others have the right to request curbside voting, although that’s not always a super easy process for people to engage in,” said Cathy Brown, director of public policy and advocacy at Paraquad.

“For example, at my polling place there is a sign on the door, which is quite far away from the curb where a person might request curbside voting, saying ‘Curbside voting is available. Inquire within. But if you’re a person who can’t get in the door it’s nearly impossible to request curbside voting.”

Other physical access issues include unmarked ramp entrances, and old buildings that don’t have ramps.

Eric Fey, St. Louis County Board of Elections director, demonstrates how to select an audio ballot versus the large-print option on the iVotronic system.
Credit file photo | Stephanie Lecci | St. Louis Public Radio.
Eric Fey, St. Louis County Board of Elections director, demonstrates how to select an audio ballot versus the large-print option on the iVotronic system during a demonstration before the 2016 primary.

Brown also said some poll workers during the primary didn’t know how to use the accessibility voting machines.

“Some people actually reported they were unable to cast their ballot on an accessible voting machine, and instead were forced to cast their ballot by virtue of a poll worker reading the ballot to them, which sort of takes an element of privacy out of the entire process that everyone else gets to have,” Brown said, adding that poll workers need to know that people have the right to be assisted by a person of their choosing.

Brown said Paraquad shares the voting feedback it receives with local election authorities, and poll worker training has improved. But some poll workers still have gaps in their knowledge.

“Despite constant education and cooperation with local election authorities in the greater St. Louis area, it seems like people with disabilities continue to have issues at the polling place,” Brown said.

“I’ve heard of circumstances where an individual walks in and a person assumes or identifies them as a person with a disability, and then asks the person who is with them what kind of ballot they would like or what kind of machine they would like to use,” Brown said.

“Not only having the legally required accessible voting machines, accessible entry to the polling places, the curbside voting available, but also having poll workers that understand how to interact with people with disabilities in a respectful way becomes really important to the experience of voting for voters with disabilities, of which there are many.”

According to a report by Rutgers University, almost 18 percent of eligible voters in Missouri have a disability.

Brown said people interested in where Missouri candidates stand on issues important to people with disabilities can look at a rundown compiled by Paraquad.

St. Louis Public Radio is a partner with Propublica's Electionland Project, which is covering access to the ballot and problems that prevent people from exercising their right to vote during the 2016 election. If you are aware of any such problems, let us us know, or text your concern to ELECTIONLAND to 69866.

Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille.