Missing wheelchair ramps, blocked paths and locked doors at accessible entrances are some of the barriers that have prevented disabled persons from voting, according to one advocacy group, and now a federal court has ordered the Board of Elections to adopt a plan that would eliminate such obstructions.
The BOE must have one Americans with Disabilities Act poll worker at every city voting location in time for the Nov. 6 general election. The person will be trained on poll-site accessibility by the Center for the Independence of the Disabled in New York.
Over the next four years, the BOE must work with a third party voting access specialist to develop a plan to transition its polling sites to accessible facilities, the court order states.
“I think it’s long overdue,” said Kevin Ryan, a spokesman for City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone), who sits on the council’s committee overseeing issues of disabilities. “In a sense, access to voting is one of the most important things handicapped people need to have.”
The decision is the result of a lawsuit filed in July 2010 by the United Spinal Association and Disabled In Action, two advocacy groups that strive to ensure people with disabilities can live independent lives.
The BOE did not respond to an email requesting comment by press time.
On Aug. 8, a federal judge determined that the BOE had violated the rights of people with disabilities by not maintaining accessibility at city polling sites. Three hearings were held to try and come up with a remedy. After the second one, the judge gave the BOE an opportunity to prove that it could improve conditions on its own without the intervention of a third party, according to Stuart Seaborn, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
“We are pleased with the judge’s decision, which puts an end to massive voter barriers that overwhelmingly exclude tens of thousands of people with disabilities from voting in elections,” Seaborn said.
During last month’s primary election, the agency targeted 40 of its most problematic poll sites. However a report compiled by the plaintiffs showed that nearly 50 percent were still blocked.
“Even with a heads up that we were watching them, they still didn’t improve the sites on their own,” Seaborn said. “They need a third party to assist them.”
A study compiled by the plaintiffs of voting site accessibility over the last three years found that 121 of the 263 polling places in Queens had some kind of accessibility problem. Those included no handrails on wheelchair ramps, blocked pathways and ramps that were too steep and too long.
Ryan said he wasn’t surprised that so many sites had issues. He noted that Halloran has been a big advocate for ballot-marking machines, which became available at all polling sites citywide this year.
The ballot-marking machines allow disabled voters to cast their ballots by touching a computer screen, sipping or puffing on a straw, pumping a foot pedal or pressing flat plastic shapes on a keyboard.
“But it doesn’t do much good if people can’t get into the building,” Ryan said.
Julia Pinover, another attorney representing the plaintiffs in the case, said the court’s decision “marks a historic moment” and gives people with disabilities “the dignity and respect they deserve.”