Making Polls Accessible to Deaf and Hard of Hearing Voters

Under the Help American Vote Act of 2002 (Public Law 107-252, 42 U.S.C. §§ 15301-15545), states and units of local government are required to make polling places accessible to persons with disabilities.  Among their duties, states and units of local government are required to train “election officials, poll workers, and election volunteers on how best to promote the access and participation of individuals with disabilities in elections for Federal office.”  (42 U.S.C. § 15421(b)(2))

This information is provided to help State and local governments carry out this responsibility and to outline actions that State and local governments should take to make voting accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing.  Hearing voters can benefit from these measures as well.

Deaf and hard of hearing voters want access to the same information provided to other voters.  In most cases, this means information should be presented visually as well as verbally.

With about 36 million Americans – about 17 percent of the U.S. population – experiencing some degree of hearing loss, poll workers should assume that some of the voters coming to the polls are deaf or hard of hearing.  Therefore, poll workers should ensure that all auditory information is presented in a visual format.  Here are some examples of steps poll workers can take.

Voting instructions.  Before voters vote, the poll worker may ask voters to confirm their address, sign their name, etc.  Common statements and questions should be preprinted and conspicuously placed at appropriate poll locations.  Sample statements and questions:

  • Show your driver’s license or other photo identification.
  • Is your address correct?
  • Sign the registration list/card(s).
  • Take the voting card to the person standing near the voting machines.
  • Directions for how to use the voting machine are in the voting booth.
  • Do you have any questions?

Announcements.  Poll workers sometimes make announcements, such as directing voters to stand in a particular line, announcing the time the polls will be closing, or providing other logistical information.  Every time verbal announcements are made, the poll worker should provide the same information visually.  This could be accomplished by writing the information in large letters on easels placed in appropriate locations.

Service animals.  Some deaf or hard of hearing individuals are accompanied by and use a service animal (sometimes called a “hearing dog”).  Under federal anti-discrimination laws, polling places must permit these service animals to accompany the deaf or hard of hearing person.  (28 C.F.R. § 35.130(b)(7))

Deaf and hard of hearing poll workers
.  Polling places located in areas with a large deaf population should recruit and train deaf and hard of hearing poll workers and let the deaf and hard of hearing community know they will be present to assist.

Sign language interpreters.  Polling places located in areas with a large deaf population should make qualified sign language interpreters available and share this information with the deaf and hard of hearing community.  Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, qualified interpreters those who are “able to interpret effectively, accurately and impartially both receptively and expressively, using any necessary specialized vocabulary.”  (28 C.F.R. § 36.104)  Someone who “knows a little sign” is not qualified.

Training for poll workers.  Poll workers should be trained in simple steps they can take to help communicate effectively with deaf and hard of hearing individuals.  Poll workers should be trained to:

  • Make eye contact. Wait until the person can see you before speaking.
  • It may be helpful or necessary to touch the person’s shoulder or arm to get his/her attention.
  • Look at the person while speaking.
  • Speak clearly at a normal rate.
  • Make sure your face and mouth are visible.
  • Use good lighting.  Do not stand in front of a light source.
  • Use gestures.  When you point to something, such as a different area in the room or to some preprinted information, be sure you maintain or regain eye contact before speaking.
  • Repeat and rephrase your question or statement, if necessary.
  • Have available and use paper and pen to exchange written communication when necessary.
  • Be patient and courteous.

Simple steps can go a long way to ensuring accessibility for all of America’s voters.

For more information, please go to the National Disability Rights Network’s Protection and Advocacy for Voting Access website at http://www.ndrn.org/issues/voting.