Justice Department reaches agreement with Harris County to ensure polling place accessibility for disabled voters

Under the settlement, Harris County will have to alter its polling places to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Voters wait in line outside a Houston polling place.
Voters wait in line outside a Houston polling place.  Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

Harris County on Tuesday agreed to make its voting locations more accessible to people with disabilities, settling a lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Justice in which the federal agency alleged that the county was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The 2016 lawsuit alleged many of Harris County’s more than 750 voting places had architectural barriers — like steep ramps or gaps in walkways— that made them inaccessible to voters with mobility or vision disabilities. Under the settlement, Harris County will have to change its current voting program to comply with the ADA.

“I commend Harris County for its decision to enter into this agreement in order to achieve our shared goal of making polling places accessible to all eligible voters,” said U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick in a statement.

As part of the settlement, the county will have to provide curbside voting, create a better system to choose accessible polling places and identify accessibility barriers at current poling places and find temporary solutions — such as mats or ramps— for elections. Harris County is required to conduct accessibility surveys of nearly two thirds of its polling places.

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Additionally, Harris County will hire disability experts to train county staff on how to provide accessible polling places and provide reports on how its progress in complying with the settlement.

“Every eligible voter with a disability must have an equal opportunity to vote in person at his or her local polling place,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, a lawyer with the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. “This fundamental right secures participation in our democracy and it must not be diminished or restricted by barriers to access.”

The settlement belongs to a larger Department of Justice voting initiative to protect the voting rights of disabled individuals. As part of this initiative, the Department of Justice has surveyed more than 1600 polling places and increased accessibility in more than 35 jurisdictions, including Hidalgo County in Texas.