The Department of Justice (DOJ) has announced its findings that four Texas counties violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by allegedly operating election websites that fail to meet the federal government’s benchmarks for web accessibility.
On November 6 — one day before Election Day 2023 — the DOJ issued public letters to the four counties: Colorado County, Runnels County, Smith County, and Upton County.
Accessibility issues drew the attention of the DOJ’s ADA Voting Initiative
The ADA Voting Initiative is tasked with protecting the voting rights of individuals with disabilities.
“Voting is fundamental to American democracy,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in a press release announcing the allegations.
“It is imperative that all eligible voters with disabilities across the country have the information they need to access the ballot and exercise their right to vote in state and federal elections.”
The Justice Department says that the Texas counties operated websites that are inaccessible to “individuals who are blind or have low vision, or who cannot grasp a mouse, and use screen readers, keyboards or other assistive technology.”
The DOJ’s letters list numerous accessibility barriers that may impact voters
For just one of the election websites, issues included:
- Poor keyboard accessibility, which could prevent users from navigating to important pages.
- Open and closed menus with improper semantic markup. Screen reader users would hear the menus announced as “checkboxes,” which is misleading.
- PDF documents with missing tags and alternative text.
- Improper heading levels and heading use, which make navigation difficult for assistive technology (AT) users.
- Redundant page tiles, which could prevent a voter from identifying the page that they’re on.
- Improper alternative text (also called alt text) that does not accurately describe images, charts, and other non-text content.
- Missing language attributes on Spanish webages, which could impact Spanish speakers who use AT.
- Empty hyperlinks, which can be especially frustrating for non-visual users.
We analyzed one of the websites and found additional issues. For example, the HTML alt attribute, which is used to provide alternative text, was misused on several elements. This included alt text for a Skip Navigation button, which already contained text that would be announced to screen reader users.
Web accessibility is always important, but it’s a vital concern for voting resources
Accessibility barriers can limit the ability of people with disabilities to participate in election programs and services — and in recent years, the Justice Department has stepped up its ADA web accessibility enforcement efforts.
At the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, we’ve tracked the lack of accessibility in absentee ballots, along with the numerous issues in state COVID-19 websites. While the DOJ’s actions have certainly helped to highlight the importance of digital accessibility, it’s clear that state, county, and federal websites have a long way to go.
Fortunately, that may change in the near future. The DOJ is considering a new rule that would establish WCAG Level AA as the de facto technical standards for Title II ADA compliance. If that rule becomes law, Title III standards may follow.
For now, however, it’s important to remember that digital compliance is mandatory. While the ADA lacks clear technical standards, WCAG is the international standard for a reason: It addresses the most serious issues that impact internet users with disabilities, and it’s the framework for numerous international web accessibility laws.