The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Despite Laws, Disabled Voters Face Barriers at Polls

by Catherine Komp

Voters with disabilities warn that despite anti-discrimination laws, many still face barriers when they try to go to the polls.

Oct. 27, 2006 – As a black woman, Anita Cameron said she takes voting seriously, participating in every election since she was eligible to vote. But the first time the 42-year-old voted privately and independently was just two years ago in Washington, DC after the city implemented voting machines accessible to people with disabilities.

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"It’s empowering," said Cameron, who has limited vision and uses a wheelchair. "I can’t even begin to tell you how empowering it was for me – how good I felt; you know, I felt like a real person. Like wow, I really did it."

In previous elections using paper ballots, Cameron said she either reluctantly asked poll workers for help or struggled to fill out the ballot, which could take 30 minutes depending on the number of races. But voting-machine access, said Cameron, a long-time disability-rights activist who has also served as a poll worker and election judge, is just one of the obstacles to voting.

As Election Day fast approaches, groups are concerned that despite federal regulations requiring states to provide accessible polling places and voting machines, many people will still meet barriers at the polls.

According to 2002 data from the US Census Bureau, about 51.2 million people have disabilities, and of that number, 32.5 million reported the disability was "severe."

Over the last year, people with disabilities and their advocates, a state attorney general, and the Department of Justice have filed numerous lawsuits, including in California, New York, Arizona and Alabama, alleging violations of the disability access provisions of the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The Act requires states to provide at least one voting machine accessible to voters with disabilities in each polling place by January 1, 2006 and provides funds to improve access at polling stations.

Disability-rights groups allege that several California counties’ choices of machines violate HAVA because voters with visual and mobility impairments will not be able to vote independently. The Paralyzed Veterans of America, the American Association of People with Disabilities and other groups in August filed a federal lawsuit in California against Secretary of State Bruce McPherson and local elections officials.

The controversial devices include Election System and Software AutoMARK machines, Hart optical-scan voting equipment and direct-recording electronic machines with voter-verified paper audit trail equipment. Plaintiffs say a person with impairments cannot use these machines without third-party assistance, risking that votes will be revealed, influenced or improperly cast.

Last March, the US Department of Justice filed suit against the state of New York for several violations of HAVA, including failing to "adopt voting systems that are fully accessible by disabled voters." While the suit is pending, the state board of elections office developed an interim measure under consultation with federal officials.

Board of Elections spokesperson Lee Daghlian told TNS the state has implemented a measure called "Plan B," in which local precincts are installing "ballot marking devices" accessible to people with disabilities in one or more locations in each county. The devices allow a person to mark optical-scan paper ballots using a touch-screen interface for those with visual impairments; a "sip and puff" interface for quadriplegic voters; and audio for those with visual impairments or those who speak other languages.

But Beata Karpinska-Prehn, director of advocacy at ARISE, the independent living center in Onondaga County, said even this interim measure is flawed. Officials chose one site – the local convention center in Syracuse – to set up the accessible voting systems, which Karpinska-Prehn said is an ill-suited location with little parking.

"It raises issues with transportation, of course," Karpinska-Prehn said. "Most people would like to be able to vote on accessible machines in their own polling sites."

In Massachusetts, Secretary of State spokesperson Brian McNiff told TNS the state will only have fully accessible voting systems in several hundred precincts out of more than 2000. None of those machines, which the state is leasing, were in place for the September primary, McNiff said.

In addition to HAVA, the 1984 Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act and the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, also require states to ensure voting access to people with disabilities.

In spite of federal law, disability rights advocates say, there is a range of problems people still encounter when trying to vote at polling centers: doors that are too heavy or have handles that are difficult to use, accessible entrances that are locked or not clearly marked, inaccessible positioning of the voting equipment, and inadequate training of poll workers.

"The basic requirement of having the polling place itself be accessible – in other words you can get into it in a wheel chair, that’s been part of [federal law] for some time now," said Brenda Wright, managing attorney with the National Voting Rights Institute. "Although… it’s not been fully complied with everywhere, so it’s an ongoing struggle to achieve full compliance with these laws that are out there to provide these protections."

Though all states have laws requiring accessibility at the polls, a General Accountability Office study in 2001 found that 84 percent of polling places had one or more impediments that could hinder a person with a mobility impairment from casting their ballot inside the polling station.

Cameron said in her experiences as a poll worker and election judge, she has also observed disrespect and intimidation of people with disabilities trying to vote.

"I witnessed personally an election judge coerce a person with a disability to change their vote," Cameron told TNS. "I’ve witnessed an election judge speak loudly and comment about the choice a person with a disability made."

Another problem, according to a report from the DC-based University Legal Services, is precincts that encourage people with disabilities to use curbside voting. The disability rights legal organization called this "an excuse not to make polling places accessible."

"Too often the rights of people with disabilities are just trampled upon, not even thought of," said Cameron. "It’s definitely an issue that I’m going to keep working on and working on until… we don’t have to walk into a polling place and be afraid that we’re going to be treated with disrespect, or be afraid that somebody’s not going to mark our ballot as we wish if we require help, or that we’re going to be able to use the electronic voting machine."

Cameron does acknowledge the current rift between disability rights activists, who are pushing for electronic voting machines because it makes voting easier, and some of the many groups concerned about accuracy and security of those machines, many of which have been found to have security flaws.

She explained that the machines requiring a voter-verified paper audit trail are inaccessible to some people with mobility and visual impairments because they require a person to touch a piece of paper and to read it to make sure the vote was recorded accurately. Cameron suggested that machines could also have an audio verification for those with impairments.

Addressing this conflict between prioritizing accessibility and prioritizing security, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law released a 190-page 2-year long study earlier this month examining voting-system security, accessibility, usability and cost. The report concluded "there is not yet any perfect voting system or set of procedures" that combines accessibility, affordability and security.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Catherine Komp is a contributing journalist.

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