Polling Sites testing for ADA Compliance

The Kent Free Library, located on Main Street in Kent, replaced First Christian Church in Kent as a polling site (Photo: Nicholas Lavrisiuk)

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, several changes have been made to secure polling locations and protect both poll workers and voters for the upcoming election scheduled for November 3, 2020.

Theresa Nielsen, deputy director at the Portage County Board of Elections, said they have two goals: To reduce the number of single precinct polling locations, and to make sure the current locations are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Theresa Nielsen on minimizing the number of polling sites in Portage county
Theresa Nielsen, deputy director at the Portage county Board of Elections, speaks in a Zoom call on September 29, 2020

“Over the last few years, we have been trying to reduce the number of single precinct polling locations, primarily for equipment and personnel reasons,” Nielsen said. “If you’re at a polling location with multiple precincts, you can reduce the number of officials that serve in that polling location.”

Alongside that goal is to make sure the facilities used for elections are ADA-certified.

The guidelines are meant to protect and ensure that people with disabilities are able to fully participate in in-person voting. Last updated in 2016, the guidelines contain a checklist evaluating everything from a location’s parking lot to door handles and table clearance. Evaluators may recommend temporary solutions to remove barriers preventing disabled people from voting.

Sections A, D, and F of the ADA guidelines for polling sites. Nine sections are covered in total.

“We only have half a dozen in the county that are 100% compliant,” Nielsen said. “But we make them compliant by bringing signage or finding parking spots that are flat and marking those as handicap accessible. You may think that a building that has been recently constructed would automatically be compliant with the ADA, but that is not [always] the case.”

“A quarter of our polling locations get checked every year, so we’re on a four-year cycle. We do the complete analysis again because places will make changes and [not notify] us what happened,” Nielsen said.

The Kent Free Library is one such location considered to be 100% compliant.

“We didn’t have to change anything,” said Stacey Richardson, Director of the Kent Free Library. “When the board of elections approached us, their previous location for this precinct had been right across the street, but they were not ADA compliant.”

Richardson said the library’s main concern with staff was whether or not masks would be required, and whether or not people voting in-person without masks would be turned away.

“We have not yet had that conversation with the board of elections, but that is on my to-do list,” said Richardson. “To find out what specifically they would like us to do differently than we already are.”

Stacey Richardson on reopening the Kent Free Library

Despite regulations mandating that each location adhere to ADA requirements, Nielsen said the board tries to stay consistent each election in selecting which areas will serve as polling locations, as changing them too often could cause confusion among voters.

“We try to keep them at the same locations. If we do change the location, every registered voter that is affected by the change will get a postcard telling them we’ve moved their polling location.”

Nielsen said two locations, the Kentway Retirement Center, and the University Hospitals Portage Medical Arts building in Ravenna, were both changed due to COVID-19 restrictions that could impact senior citizens as well as hospital space and overall safety.

The two were changed prior to the Ohio Primary election in Spring. The locations were changed to the Kent United Church of Christ and the Maplewood Christian Church respectively, and will remain as locations for the upcoming presidential election.

Nielsen said poll workers and locations will be provided with protective equipment and guidelines for social distancing.

Theresa Nielsen on how the board of elections will promote social distancing on election day

Absentee voting is also being encouraged by the Board, which Nielsen said helps to control the risk of spreading coronavirus. Nielsen encouraged early voters to visit the Board of Elections office in Ravenna, as it would be easier to control any virus-related risks.

“We have 129 precincts, and 54 polling locations,” Nielsen said. “We are much more able to control one polling location.