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story.lead_photo.caption 'I Voted' stickers for early voters Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, at the Benton County Election Commission office in Rogers. - Photo by Ben Goff

FAYETTEVILLE -- Mats designed for use in horse stalls will help Washington County election officials make polling places accessible to handicapped voters.

Jennifer Price, the county's election coordinator, briefed the Election Commission last week about purchases she plans to make to bring the county's 46 polling places into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

2020 elections

Election officials are working on improvements to polling places before the 2020 elections. The state’s party primary election is set for March 3, with early voting set to begin Feb. 18. The general election is Nov. 3.

Source: Washington County

Price said improved signs are needed most. But some polling places need improvements to parking lots, even if only temporary.

Price said she has a number of polling places with grass or gravel parking lots, many of them churches normally exempt from ADA requirements but have to meet those standards when used for voting. The ADA requires flat, sturdy surfaces for handicapped parking areas and pathways to sidewalks or building entrances.

"We did some research, and one of the things we looked at is outdoor festivals and how they accommodated the ADA," Price said.

The solution Price said she found is to use mats to create parking areas and pathways.

"We're using these horse stall mats we get from Tractor Supply stores," Price said. "If we've got a gravel parking lot, we create a space with traffic cones and place the mats so they can park and get out of vehicles and then get to the polling place. They're flexible but heavy enough they stay in place and they are the right width for what we need."

Price said she plans to buy 25 of the mats for about $1,000. She also plans to buy handicapped parking signs and temporary stands for about $5,600. Thresholds, small ramps that fit over door frames, are also needed so voters in wheelchairs can get into some buildings.

Kim Dennison, election coordinator for Benton County, said they may move two polling places because the locations have gravel or grass parking.

Dennison and Price said they haven't received any complaints from voters about handicapped accessible polling places but said they want to do as much as they can to head off any problems.

Renee Oelschlaeger, head of the Washington County Election Commission, said the commission has sought to be proactive.

"We've always been careful about doing what we can to comply with the ADA," Oelschlaeger said. "Some of our polling sites make that more difficult than others, mostly the more rural sites."

Polling places in both counties were reviewed in 2018 by representatives of Disability Rights of Arkansas, a nonprofit group that receives federal grant money to work toward ADA compliance in elections, among other issues.

The group detailed potential problems in both counties, with lack of proper signs the most common problem. Inadequate parking on gravel or grass at some rural locations was also mentioned.

Thomas Nichols, director of legal and advocacy services for the group, said representatives inspected more than 1,000 polling places in Arkansas before the 2018 elections and plans to do similar inspections again before the 2020 vote. Nichols said he is pleased with the response from both Benton and Washington counties.

"More than anything, we wanted them to be aware of the problems in time to make corrections," Nichols said. "We didn't get any complaints in either county."

NW News on 07/23/2019

Print Headline: County improving vote center access

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