Despite gains in access, voters with disabilities still report barriers at the polls
Jeiri Flores is 33 and has been voting since she turned 18.
"But most recently, in this last election, I would say that was one of my most frustrating times to vote," Flores said.
That was the November 2022 election, when her polling place was a fire station on Hudson Avenue in Rochester.
Flores, who has cerebral palsy, said she arrived after dark and had to park across a busy street.
"I'm in a wheelchair and cars can't necessarily see me when I'm trying to cross the street," she recalled. "My little brother had to actually get out of the car and be, like, a cross-walker for me."
Once inside, Flores said the space where an accessible voting machine was placed was too small to navigate with her wheelchair.
"Honestly, I had to hand my ballot over to someone else to push it through the machine because I could not fit in the room," she said.
This is the kind of problem that Monroe County Republican elections commissioner Lisa Nicolay hopes voters will point out before they leave the polling location.
"Speak up right there," Nicolay urged. "Ask to see a site chair, ask to see somebody in charge. We can help immediately if we know what's going on."
Federal law requires states to make poll sites and voting systems accessible.
In Monroe County, each polling location is required to have an accessible voting machine with features intended to make it easier to use for people with visual impairments or other disabilities.
Poll workers are trained on the machines, but Nicolay conceded there are limitations when training thousands of inspectors each year.
"We do our very best, but let's be honest, it's a lot of people that get a couple hour training class. And so, we always tell them: Run it up the flagpole," she said.
Once again, she encourages voters to ask if they need help. Nicolay said they are trained to not make assumptions about people with a visible disability.
"We don't insist that they need our help just because they appear a certain way," she added.
As for the poll sites themselves, all must meet ADA requirements, but they are not all equal. For instance, a suburban location might be more spacious and surrounded by convenient parking, unlike an older building in the city.
Voters have more options in the nine-day early voting period. They can go to any of the 13 poll locations throughout the county. Or they can bypass in-person voting altogether by applying for an absentee ballot. These are available to any New Yorker with a temporary or permanent illness or disability.
"We will automatically mail you your ballot for every election without you even having to ask," said Democratic elections commissioner Jackie Ortiz. "You can fill it out in the comfort of your living room and then send it back to us by mail or drop it into an absentee ballot box on election day or during early voting."
Many people with disabilities are taking advantage of expanded mail-in voting rights in the U.S. That was the preference of nearly three-quarters of voters with disabilities in the 2020 presidential election.
But it doesn't appeal to Flores. She thinks she'd have the same kind of problems she sometimes encounters when voting in person.
"That additional step of having to figure out how to get to the post office is where everything falls apart for me," she said.
But Flores won't use this as an excuse to sit out this year's election or any other election.
"I'm of Hispanic descent, and so I really often think about how many Hispanic folks don't vote and don't even know the process of voting in our own city and don't have a say in what's happening," she said. "So I look at this as something bigger than me, and I try to make it every time."
Early voting runs through Nov. 5. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7.
This story comes from WXXI's Inclusion Desk, focusing on disabilities and inclusion.