Voting Irregularities in Florida During the 2000 Presidential Election

Chapter 6

Accessibility Issues

The right to vote is not only a sacred testament to the struggles of the past. It is an indispensable weapon in our current arsenal of efforts to empower those who have traditionally been left out.[1]

After the November 7, 2000, election, newspapers were plastered with headlines about the complaints of Americans alleging their ability to vote was delayed, blocked, or otherwise impeded. The grievances voiced by Floridians at the Commission hearings on Election Day irregularities held in Tallahassee and Miami included inaccessible polling places for people with disabilities and the inability to receive language assistance. This chapter focuses on accessibility—the physical barriers and language barriers that disenfranchised some Florida voters.


The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its subsequent amendments are designed to ensure every citizen entitled to vote can both register to vote and have access to his or her polling site—both physical accessibility and ballot accessibility. Physical accessibility includes not only accessible entrance into a voting precinct, but also physical access to a polling booth. Ballot accessibility includes ballots that do not discriminate against blind or visually impaired individuals as well as individuals who are unable to read English. The Commission hearings in Florida included testimony from Floridians with disabilities and of limited English proficiency contending they were disenfranchised in the November 2000 election because their precincts were not accessible.[2] 


In 1984, Congress passed the Voter Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act, which requires that all polling places be physically accessible to voters with disabilities.[3] When a polling place is not accessible, it must be relocated or made temporarily accessible.[4] If neither option is achievable, election officials might be allowed to employ an alternate method, such as curbside voting.[5] Specifically, the statute provides:

(a) within each State . . . each political subdivision within each State . . . responsible for conducting elections shall assure that all polling places for Federal elections are accessible to handicapped and elderly voters.[6]

The statute required the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to report to Congress “no later than December 31 of each even-numbered year . . . the number of accessible and inaccessible polling places in such State on the date of the preceding general federal election, and the reasons for such inaccessibility.” The FEC was only required to file these reports for a period of 10 years beginning in 1984.[7] The FEC fulfilled this duty, collecting data through self-reporting by local jurisdictions. The FEC’s final report in 1992 found that 86 percent of polling places in the United States were physically accessible to individuals with disabilities seeking to exercise their right to vote.

Disability advocacy groups, routinely hearing from their constituents, were skeptical of these numbers and have challenged these numbers, conducting their own surveys to determine compliance with the Voter Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act. In fact, a recent report titled Voters Denied Equal Access at the Polls found numbers startlingly different from those of the FEC.[8] Voters Denied found that “voters with disabilities frequently encountered physical accessibility problems at their polling places.”[9] The report noted that independent surveys and court cases suggest that potentially 40 percent of polling places “continue to pose significant accessibility problems for voters with disabilities.”[10]

Florida’s Inaccessible Polling Places for People with Disabilities

At the Commission’s Tallahassee hearing, Jim Dickson of the National Organization on Disability testified that the inaccessibility of the nation’s voting systems means that many people with disabilities are unable to vote.[11] In addition, many of these people with disabilities found themselves forced to cope with inaccessible polling places that failed to provide proper accommodations. In some polling places, individuals using wheelchairs had to negotiate steps and unreachable polling booths. Some visually impaired voters were not provided with proper equipment to assist them in reading the ballots. As a result, they had to rely on poll workers and others to cast their ballots, denying them the right to a secret ballot. Many poll workers were not adequately trained to provide proper assistance to individuals with disabilities, denying these voters their rights.

The following examples present vivid illustrations of the barriers individuals with disabilities encountered when attempting to vote.

Miriam M. Oliphant, supervisor of elections for Broward County, conceded that some precincts in her district are inaccessible and need ramps to comply with accessibility requirements.[18] Ms. Oliphant also admitted that some precincts were not only inaccessible, but could not be ramped or made accessible and needed to “be replaced.”[19]

These are not isolated instances. Based on the hearings held by the Commission and the testimony of witnesses, numerous Florida residents encountered obstacles to polling places and were thus disenfranchised.

Requirements of accessibility are not limited to individuals with physical disabilities. The Voting Rights Act requires “ballot accessibility.” This includes voters who are blind or visually impaired and those with language barriers. Accessibility means that individuals with accessibility issues—whether they be physical or language issues—should have the same access to precincts and ballots as individuals without these barriers.


The majority of non-English-speaking Americans are native-born citizens constitutionally entitled to vote.[20] Congress responded in 1975 by enacting amendments to the Voting Rights Act addressing voting discrimination against members of “language minority groups,”[21] which prohibit states from providing voting materials exclusively in English when certain conditions exist.[22] Prior to the 1975 legislation,[23] which requires multilingual voting assistance in areas with large numbers of non-English speakers, people who did not understand English were effectively disenfranchised by elections held only in English. Congress enacted a multilingual requirement if:

(i)(I) more than five percent of the citizens of voting age of such State or political subdivision are members of a single language minority and are limited-English proficient;
(II) more than 10,000 of the citizens of voting age of such political subdivision are members of a single language minority and are limited-English proficient; or
(III) in the case of a political subdivision that contains all or any part of an Indian reservation, more than five percent of the . . . citizens of voting age within the Indian reservation are members of a single language minority and are limited-English proficient; and
(ii) the illiteracy rate of the citizens in the language minority as a group is higher than the national illiteracy rate.[24]

The law requires that when this provision applies, all “voting notices, forms, instructions, assistance, or other materials or information relating to the electoral process, including ballots[,]” be provided in the appropriate language of the minority group as well as English.[25]

Florida’s Inaccessible Ballots for Non-English or Limited-English-Proficient Voters

Despite the requirements that non-English-proficient voters be provided with some form of language assistance, large numbers of limited English-speaking voters were denied this assistance at polling places all around Florida. This occurred in counties and precincts where bilingual ballots and language assistance are mandated. Because of this failure to provide proper language assistance, voters faced problems understanding the ballots or the fundamental procedure for voting. The groups disproportionately affected were Haitian Americans and Spanish-speaking Latinos.

Many poll workers were not properly trained to handle language assistance issues. Some voters found that even when volunteers were available to provide assistance, the volunteers or precinct workers were prevented from providing language assistance. In some instances, bilingual poll workers were directed to not provide language assistance to voters who were in need of that assistance. Thus, these non-English minority voters found their polling places to have ballots that were, essentially, inaccessible to them.

Marleine Bastien, a Haitian American community leader, testified at the Commission’s Miami hearing that she received an overwhelming number of complaints on Election Day. She visited polling places that were required by county ordinance to provide bilingual ballots. Ms. Bastien was disturbed to learn that the precincts, in violation of the law, did not have bilingual ballots. Many Haitian American voters were, in effect, turned away from their polling places without the opportunity to vote.[26]

Similarly, Jackson Chin, associate counsel at the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDEF), testified at the Tallahassee hearing that after a “groundswell of complaints from Latino Floridians,” the PRLDEF “dispatched a team of lawyers to investigate and to assess multiple complaints.”[27] PRLDEF’s field investigation revealed that many eligible Puerto Rican voters were turned away from polling places without proper language assistance. Mr. Chin expressed his surprise that counties subject to section 203 of the Voting Rights Act failed to meet their “legal obligations to guarantee meaningful electoral access to its growing Spanish-speaking language minority voters.”[28] In some counties, many Latino voters did not receive bilingual assistance.[29] PRLDEF believes that certain election practices and policies in Florida led to widespread voter disenfranchisement of possibly several thousand Latino voters.[30]

At the Tallahassee hearing, however, the director of the Division of Elections, L. Clayton Roberts, testified that his office in fact provided posters to the supervisors of elections in Spanish and English.[31] He stated:

The extent of what we’ve done on mechanics of voting is we provide posters to the supervisor of elections in Spanish and English, which are posted in the polling place that explain to voters the basics of voting; to get their ballot, take it to their voting system to vote it, if they make an error on it, they are entitled to get another ballot.[32]

Similarly, Florida Attorney General Robert A. Butterworth testified that approximately 11 counties have ballots in English and Spanish.[33] Attorney General Butterworth said preclearance[34] counties are required to have ballots in both English and Spanish.[35] He also commended Miami-Dade County for its ordinance that requires ballots to be translated into Creole because of its large Haitian community.[36] Approximately 60 Miami-Dade County precincts had ballots in both English and Creole.[37] Attorney General Butterworth nevertheless conceded the Miami-Dade County ordinance does not resolve all the language assistance issues. He noted:

Now there might not have been enough handouts in Creole or enough interpreters there to assist, but I think at least the counties went in the right direction, and with the strong enrollment, this time the Haitian American community had a tremendous enrollment, a tremendous turnout and it appears that there may not have been enough materials for this election.[38]

Attorney General Butterworth defended Miami-Dade County from criticisms that it was not prepared for the voter turnout on November 7, 2000, remarking:

When you see a community like Miami-Dade attempting to reach out and do what they believe is appropriate and they miss the estimates—well, gee, all the news media missed the estimate twice when it came to Florida. But they tried to, as they predict what the election is going to be, how many machines they’ll need in each precinct, they have to go by their own experience and the people in the community.[39]

After the November election and upon further reflection, Attorney General Butterworth recommended that Broward County enact an ordinance requiring Creole translation in certain precincts.[40] He conceded that so many languages are spoken in Florida that accommodations are essential.[41]


The inaccessibility of polling places—for both individuals with physical disabilities needing barrier-free access to buildings and those needing ballot accessibility—was an issue presented at the Commission’s Florida hearings.

It is estimated that voter participation among people with disabilities is at least 15 to 20 percent below that of the population at large.[42] Despite the enactment of the federal law requiring polling places to be accessible to people with disabilities, the law is not enforced and barriers that prevent individuals with disabilities from voting have not been removed at all polling places. Credible testimony established that many voters, unable to access (enter) the precincts, returned home without voting. Others, while able to gain physical access to their precinct, found the booths or ballots inaccessible and were deprived of their voting rights.

Many language minority voters were also effectively prevented from casting a ballot because election officials refused to provide bilingual ballots or assistance on Election Day, and many persons who were not literate were denied adequate assistance in casting their ballots. Remarkably, while being denied this assistance, other language minority voters were forced to vacate the voting booth after five minutes, a limitation imposed by Florida law.[43] These failures meant that language minority voters were denied meaningful participation in the November 2000 election.

Florida’s chief legal officer, Robert A. Butterworth, conceded that more “accommodations” must be made to enfranchise voters with special needs. He noted, “We should also target those communities with the most urgent needs and Florida has communities with many urgent needs, especially language needs, people who are elderly and minority communities who are voting sometimes for the first time.”[44] He added, “We have so many languages that are being spoken throughout Florida . . . that we have to make accommodations.”[45]

Unless and until these accommodations are made, for both persons with disabilities and language minority voters, the struggles to gain the right to vote and the history of barriers being erected remain.

[1] President Clinton’s Message to Congress on the Unfinished Work of Building One America, Federal Department and Agency Documents, Jan. 15, 2000.

[2] There are various laws that mandate states and the federal government to achieve comparable access for individuals with disabilities or special needs. These include the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. For example, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination in the election process by state and local entities, ensuring access to people with disabilities, and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires that state and local governments receiving federal funds ensure that their programs are accessible to persons with disabilities.

[3] 42 U.S.C. § 1973ee (1984). Prior to its passage, the few cases challenging the right to vote by individuals with disabilities were rejected on the basis that because absentee ballot voting was available, there was no requirement that polling places be accessible.

[4] An example of the proper implementation of the physical accessibility provisions of the Voter Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act is found in Monroe County, Florida. The day before any election—local or national—the Department of Public Works goes to each precinct that is inaccessible and installs a temporary ramp and other modifications to ensure accessibility to those with physical disabilities.

[5] For example, in Miami-Dade, a deputy sheriff, at 7 a.m. on Election Day, posts a sign near the front entrance of a polling place that reads, “Voters who find the polling place inaccessible should see the Deputy Sheriff.” The deputy sheriff, should be “stationed near the front entrance of the polling place while the polls are open [to] watch for voters with mobility impairment” that prevents them from gaining access to the voting area. A clerk or assistant clerk is then dispatched to the curbside to confirm that the voter is properly registered and then provides a ballot card, secrecy envelope, and voting device for the voter. After the “elector [places] the ballot in the secrecy envelope” the clerk brings the ballot and voting device back to the ballot box and “with [an] inspector observing” casts the ballot into the ballot box for the individual with the disability. See David Leahy, supervisor of elections, Miami-Dade County, Response to Commission’s Interrogatory 6, Exhibit C, p. 31. Miami-Dade also provides procedures for disabled voters requiring assistance. The voter completes a “Declaration to Secure Assistance” affidavit. The voter is then escorted with a clerk and a “person of the voter’s choice to a votomatic” or has two election board members assigned to assist the voter. Ibid., Exhibit C. It is unclear from Mr. Leahy’s response to the interrogatory whether the deputy sheriffs providing curbside assistance were in uniform or plainclothes. See chap. 2.

[6] 42 U.S.C. § 1973ee-1(a) (1984).

[7] 42 U.S.C. § 1973ee-1(c)(3) (1984).

[8] New Hampshire Developmental Disabilities Council, National Voter Independence Project, Voters Denied Equal Access at the Polls, A Report on the Status of Accessibility to Polling Places in the United States, 2000.

[9] Ibid., p. 6.

[10] Ibid. The report cites many examples and found in one state that a shocking 60 percent of polling places were inaccessible. Perhaps most egregious are two New York counties in which every polling place, with the exception of one, was physically inaccessible to voters with disabilities. Ibid.

[11] Jim Dickson Testimony, Tallahassee Verified Transcript, Jan. 11, 2001, p. 204.

[12] Joy Cohen, Testimony before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Miami, FL, Feb. 16, 2001, Verified Transcript, pp. 115–16.

[13] Harold Cousminer Testimony, Miami Verified Transcript, Feb. 16, 2001, pp. 58–60. Mr. Cousminer suggested that the disabled population votes 15 percent to 20 percent less than other communities because of the insufficient accommodations at polling places. Mr. Cousminer recommended that supervisors of elections utilize the following: (1) disability advisory groups to assess “whether the entire voting process is accessible and to determine what makes a polling place or ballot inaccessible”; (2) a polling place access guide provided by the National Task Force on Election Accessibility; (3) buildings already deemed accessible for polling places; (4) signs to direct people to disabled accessible entrances; (5) wheelchair accessible voting booths; and (6) larger print ballots for the visually impaired. Ibid., pp. 62–65.

[14] Frederick Shotz Testimony, Miami Verified Transcript, Feb. 16, 2001, pp. 20–25. Dr. Shotz stated that he was not offered the accommodation to which he was accustomed at his polling place for the November 2000 election. Dr. Shotz described his experience as follows:

“And then, much to my surprise, the accommodation I’ve been given in the past to have the voting platter placed on a table for me where I could actually see to vote was denied with the excuse being, ‘We have no spare tables and we are too busy today.’ But there was a votomatic machine with a wheelchair symbol taped to the machine. And somebody had actually lowered two of the legs to make it at wheelchair accessible height, but the machine has four legs, not two. So the front of the machine was higher than the back of the machine causing it to tilt away from me and making it almost impossible to see the ballot. The legs were not wide enough apart for my wheelchair so I could not sit close to the machine. I fortunately was able to use my arms to lift myself up and attempt to read the ballot and to cast my vote. I have the strength in my arms to do that. Many people that use wheelchairs do not.”

Ibid., pp. 24–25. Although some may propose that absentee ballots are a reasonable accommodation to people with special needs, Dr. Shotz testified that while absentee ballots may provide access to the voting process, it does “not provide equal access for people who want to vote on Election Day.” Ibid., p. 20.

[15] Felix Boyle Testimony, Miami Verified Transcript, Feb. 16, 2001, p. 97.

[16] Robert A. Butterworth, Florida attorney general, “Ballot in Palm Beach County,” letter to addressee, Nov. 8, 2000, Bates No. 0010150.

[17] Frederick Shotz Testimony, Miami Verified Transcript, Feb. 16, 2001, p. 35.

[18] Miriam M. Oliphant, supervisor of elections, Broward County, Response to Commission’s Interrogatory 1, Apr. 16, 2001.

[19] Ibid.

[20] It is estimated that over 23 million Americans speak languages other than English in their homes. See Bureau of the Census, U.S. Department of Commerce, Statistical Abstract of the United States (1996).

[21] 42 U.S.C. § 1973b(f)(1) (1994).

[22] 42 U.S.C. § 1973aa-1a (1994). The Voting Rights Act defines “language minorities” or “language minority groups” as persons who are “American Indian, Asian American, Alaskan Natives or of Spanish heritage.” 42 U.S.C. § 1973(c)(3) (1994).

[23] 42 U.S.C. § 1973b(f)(4) (1982). The 1975 amendments to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 provide that in any jurisdiction covered by the act “[w]henever any [jurisdiction] . . . provides any registration or voting notices, forms, instructions, assistance, or other materials or information relating to the electoral process, including ballots,” it shall provide them on a multilingual basis to members of applicable language minority groups.

[24] 42 U.S.C. § 1973aa-1a(b)(2)(A) (1994).

[25] 42 U.S.C. § 1973aa-1a(c) (1994). This provision compels “any State or political subdivision subject to [42 U.S.C. § 1973aa-1a(b) to] provide[ ] any registration or voting notices, forms, instructions, assistance, or other materials or information relating to the electoral process, including ballots . . . in the language of the applicable minority group as well as in the English language.”

[26] Marlene Bastien Testimony, Miami Verified Transcript, Feb. 16, 2001, pp. 25–28.

[27] Jackson Chin Testimony, Miami Verified Transcript, Feb. 16, 2001, p. 197.

[28] Ibid. In 1975, Congress enacted Public Law 94-73, which amended the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). Section 203 of that law amended section 4 of the VRA and was enacted after “Congress [found] that voting discrimination against citizens of language minorities [was] pervasive and national in scope.” Among other things, the subsection provided that “no voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote because he is a member of a language minority group.” 42 U.S.C. § 1973b(f)(2) (1984). The objective of the VRA’s new provisions was to enable members of applicable language minority groups to participate effectively in the electoral process, including a requirement that materials and assistance be provided in a way that allows members of applicable language minority groups to be informed of and participate in voting-connected activities.

[29] Ibid., pp. 200–01.

[30] Ibid., p. 198.

[31] L. Clayton Roberts, Testimony before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Tallahassee, FL, Jan. 12, 2001, Verified Transcript, p. 286.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Robert A. Butterworth Testimony, Tallahassee Verified Transcript, Jan. 12, 2001, p. 201.

[34] When a state or political subdivision has violated the Voting Rights Act (VRA), it becomes subject to preclearance obligations under section 5 of the VRA. The jurisdiction subject to section 5 must obtain preclearance—procedures the state must follow whenever it enacts or seeks to administer any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting. 42 U.S.C. § 1973c (1994). Preclearance requires proof that the proposed voting change does not deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. Section 5 provides that preclearance may be obtained only from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia or from the United States attorney general.

[35] Robert A. Butterworth Testimony, Tallahassee Verified Transcript, Jan. 12, 2001, p. 218.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., p. 220.

[41] Ibid., p. 219.

[42] Genevieve Cousminer, coordinator of advocacy services, Coalition for Independent Living Options, Miami Verified Transcript, Feb. 16, 2001, p. 62.

[43] Fla. Stat. ch. 101.51 (1999).

[44] Robert A. Butterworth Testimony, Tallahassee Verified Transcript, Jan. 12, 2001, p. 201.

[45] Ibid., p. 219.