SALT LAKE CITY — For Mark Christiansen, getting to the polling place in a wheelchair has at times meant being pulled over curbs and carried up and down stairs.
But Christiansen has voted in every presidential race since 1964, long before the passage of federal laws that require buildings, polling places and voting equipment to be accessible.
"Access is really a huge issue for people," said Christiansen, who has required a wheelchair since a diving accident in 1961 that broke his neck in three places and left him a quadriplegic.
Despite those challenges, Christiansen believes it is important to take part in the civic activity.
"It's kind of fun to see the people there. It's an important social connection," he said.
While changes in policy and practice resulting from the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Help America Vote Act have largely improved access to polling places and polling equipment, voting participation by people with disabilities is 7 percent lower than the general population.
"If barriers to voting persist, the largest minority group in our country is denied access to the most democratic participation process in America,” said Jana Burke, director of the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain ADA Center.
In the Beehive state, the Utah Disability Law Center receives federal grants to assess the accessibility of polling places and to ensure people are able to cast ballots privately and independently.
Sherri Newton, voting access program director for the disability law center, said 10 years after the passage of the Help America Vote Act, the agency continues to find polling places that are inaccessible because they have stairs, no curb cuts or inadequate parking. Some buildings have ramps but they are too steep to provide reasonable access. Others lack handrails.
The agency documents its findings through reports and photographs, which are sent to county clerks with the expectation that the issues will be corrected by Election Day, as required by federal law. The agency also provides economical suggestions to resolve the issues, Newton said.
To facilitate those fixes, the federal government provides a grant to the state of Utah to help pay for the improvements, which can be as simple as replacing hardware on a door to make it easier to open or building ramps to facilitate access.
"What's frustrating is, our county clerks have underutilized that money and it's being sent back to the federal government each year," Newton said. In past years, some $30,000 to $70,000 has been returned to federal coffers.
Part of the problem is that a variety of public buildings are used as polling places, many of which the county clerks have no role in their budgets or capital priorities.
"What is more frustrating to me are the easy fixes that no one bothers to do that do have a big impact," Newton said.
Other counties have made great strides in ensuring that people can access polling places and they are able to cast their ballots privately and on their own. Davis County, for instance, has been recognized by the Utah Disability Law Center for its efforts.
Law center employees and community volunteers will visit polling places on Election Day to determine whether issues have been corrected.
There are 1.15 million people with disabilities in Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming who deserve equal access to participate in the voting process, Burke said.
“The voices and votes of the one out of every five Americans living with a disability will play a critical role in the 2012 election.”
According to the Rocky Mountain ADA Center, voting participation climbed to 14.7 million Americans with disabilities during the 2008 election, up nearly 4 million from 2000.
"Several improvements can be credited with this increased level of participation. These include passage of the Help America Vote Act in 2002, improvements in accessibility to polling places and voting machines, and increased use of mail-in ballots, improvements in attitudes, changes in voter demographics and amplified relevance of political issues for voters with disabilities," Burke said.
Christiansen said he has voted by mail the last two election cycles. And while he now prefers that experience to going to the polls, as chairman of the Utah Independent Living Center board of directors, he is aware of other impediments that people with disabilities face when they travel to polling places on public transportation.
"A lot of voting spots are not on main lines. You have to be really committed to voting because of the problems of getting to the polling places," he said.
When the Utah Transit Authority eliminates bus routes as a cost-saving measure, "they're making it more difficult for people with disabilities."
Jerry Costley, executive director of Utah's Disabled Rights Action Committee, said changes in law, practice and attitude have improved voting access overall, but there is a need for ongoing advocacy to make sure people's rights are protected and that poll workers are trained to ensure voters can cast their ballots with the utmost confidentiality.
Costley said he occasionally hears about people who are told they cannot register to vote because of mental disabilities. Unless a court orders voting restrictions — and these orders are extremely rare, Costley said — people with disabilities have the same voting rights as anyone else. Even ex-felons in Utah have their voting rights restored once they have been paroled, placed on probation or have completed their sentences.
"For a lot of people, it's a community experience. It's a very important community experience," Costley said.