If anyone has been reading this column with any regularity, then you know my passion in this whole disability deal is the American citizen's right to vote.
Statistically, one in five people in this country have a disability. Not all disabilities prevent one from voting, but I'd hazard a guess that probably one-third of the population who identify themselves as having a disability (there is a huge chunk of folks who do not) don't vote.
First, let's even the playing field and assume everyone can get to the polling place. Rural as we are here, that's a toughie for everyone - so let's just say everyone that is eligible to vote gets to where they need to be. One would think that once a voter gets to the polling site they are home free due to a variety of federal laws!
The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 requires polling places across the United States to be physically accessible to people with disabilities for federal elections. Since most places have local, state and federal election polling places at the same location, you would have to assume that even if there was a federal election last year, but not one this year, that the polling site, which was required to be physically accessible to voters with disabilities last year, is still accessible this year.
Well, your basic premise is flawed, my friend, because even after 25 years, there are a very significant number of polling places in our local area and beyond that are not accessible. PERIOD.
In 1999, New York state ran a check of polling sites throughout the state. In three upstate counties fewer than 10 percent of the polling places were fully compliant with federal and state accessibility requirements.
There are a million reasons, I'm sure. The two that come to my mind are: No one is enforcing the law, and election officials never see people with disabilities voting, so why go through the trouble. Enforcement is an issue unto itself, but as for the second point, my only response is of course, you don't see people with disabilities at the polling places they can't get in!
In between the Voting Accessibility Law of 1984 and polling place accessibility study in 1999, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. This law required accessibility to all places of public accommodation (this means places; open to the public) and all government buildings.
It also required that places that receive federal funds, like public housing, schools, etc. also be accessible. PERIOD. Apparently, even by 1999, no one was paying attention.
Enter the presidential election in 2000, the debacle in Florida and the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). HAVA was a federal mandate passed in 2002, which in part, authorized the federal government to make payments to state and local governments for making polling places, including the path of travel, entrances, exits, and voting areas of each polling facility, accessible to individuals with disabilities. This includes the blind and visually impaired, in a manner that provides the same opportunity for access and participation (including privacy and independence) as for other voters. This also includes providing individuals with disabilities and others with information about the accessibility of polling places, including outreach programs to inform the individuals about the availability of accessible polling places and training election officials, poll workers, and election volunteers on how best to promote the access and participation of individuals with disabilities in elections for federal office.
People are under the mistaken impression that HAVA was put in place for people with disabilities. It most certainly was not. The accessibility factor comes into play because of federal laws already in place regarding accessibility, federal funds, etc. States were given big bucks to comply with HAVA. Sadly, New York state is the only state that has yet to comply. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against New York state because of the state's continued noncompliance of federal regulations.
Why can every other state in the country implement HAVA and we cannot?
In early 2008, it was estimated that New York state was sitting on close to $220 million in federal funds, specifically tagged to be used to bring New York state into compliance with HAVA to purchase new machines, provide machine testing as well as general training for election inspectors. I can't really find out how much, if any, has been spent since 2008 but if some has been spent, I'd sure like to know where and how.
Oct. 29, 2009 is the seventh anniversary of the Help America Vote Act. Currently, every polling place in the state is required to have at least one voting machine that is fully accessible for everyone to cast a private ballot independently.
The accessible machines are for everyone to use, not just people with disabilities. If the machines were just for people with disabilities that would constitute a "cripple line." One line for nondisabled folks and the other line for disabled-segregation and discrimination at its best!
Town election officials, take a look around the polling site and consider physical access. Just because the county Board of Elections puts that little wheelchair accessible symbol on the postcards they mail out to voters notifying them of their polling site does not mean the site is accessible. I was a town clerk in a past life, I know more than the average voter.
If you see accessibility issues, regardless if you are an election official or just a voter, give TLCIL a call. Chances are the issue can be resolved before Election Day without much trouble or expense.
VOTE, VOTE, VOTE! Use the new machines! VOTE, VOTE, VOTE!