Disabled Voters Force NYC to Confront Barriers
A federal judge in New York has ruled that New York City fails to provide disabled voters with adequate access to vote at polling places, and the city’s Board of Elections (BOE) must come up with a fix in time for the election in November.
On Aug. 8, Judge Deborah A. Batts granted summary judgment to the nonprofit organizations United Spinal Association and Disabled In Action in a lawsuit filed in July 2010 under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on the 20th anniversary of its passage. The ruling means that the plaintiffs won before even having to go before a jury; no reasonable jury could find for the city, said Judge Batts.
The Big Inaccessible Apple
“New York City has been surprisingly inhospitable and inaccessible to people with disabilities,” says Christine Chuang, a staff attorney at Disability Rights Advocates, which represented the plaintiffs. She notes that the city’s subways, office buildings, taxi fleet and businesses exclude people with disabilities.
The ADA requires public entities including the BOE to make reasonable modifications to their policies and procedures in order to avoid discriminating against people with disabilities by denying their participation in public services, which includes the right to vote.
Chuang says the problem targeted by the lawsuit is that the BOE designates polling places in the city’s public schools and public buildings that are often structurally inaccessible to voters with mobility and vision impairments. Almost half a million New Yorkers have ambulatory problems and another 145,000 suffer vision impairments, according to the opinion.
“The pervasive barriers at polling places throughout New York City have been documented for years through surveys conducted by the Center for the Independence of the Disabled, New York, which showed widespread barriers such as unsafe ramps, missing signage, locked accessible entrances and misplaced BMD voting machines,” Chuang explains.
The BMD, or Ballot Marking Device, voting machines are designed for voters with a variety of disabilities.
Absentee Voting: Not Good Enough
While many Americans with disabilities cast absentee votes instead of dealing with the hassle of inaccessible voting places, Chuang says this is not a good answer to the problem.
“Absentee voting does not allow voters to vote alongside their neighbors at their polling places and participate in the political life of their communities, which is a fundamental American ritual that no one should be denied,” she says. “Being required to vote via absentee voting makes people with disabilities as a group invisible and creates a feeling of alienation.”
Absentee voting also requires voters to cast their ballots earlier than Election Day, which prevents them from taking into account late-breaking news about candidates, Chuang points out. “Also, many of the barriers at polling places are only encountered when voters arrive at the polling place, such as steep, dangerous ramps and locked accessible entrances with no assigned staff, and they may not know about these access barriers in advance. In these cases, an absentee ballot may not be an option.”
The problem goes far beyond the island of Manhattan, but because of its invisibility, many Americans don’t know of the plight of their disabled neighbors. “The Department of Justice has entered into settlement agreements with many municipalities throughout the country regarding the issue of accessible polling places,” notes Chuang. “This appears to be a widespread problem throughout the country.”
Given the short amount of time before the election in November, what can disabled people do if their polling place has access impediments that have not been challenged in court yet?
“Voters with disabilities assigned to structurally inaccessible polling places can get in touch with their local Board of Elections and see whether there is an alternative method of voting, such as being transferred to an alternate accessible poll site that is close by,” suggests Chuang. “They should also confirm whether their assigned poll site uses temporary access features to meet accessibility standards, such as temporary ramps.”
If you are worried about your access to vote, consider finding a disability lawyer on Lawyers.com and discussing your options.