The New York City Board of Elections has pledged to improve poll access for the disabled, telling a federal judge yesterday that measures in place for the Sept. 13 primaries will reduce the barriers to access in some of the city’s most trouble-plagued polling places.
One month after Southern District Judge Deborah Batts (See Profile) found “pervasive” access problems that the board has yet to remedy, Assistant Corporation Counsel Stephen Kitzinger yesterday told her the board “is actively working to make sure” that “all polling places are accessible.”
But Sid Wolinsky of Disability Rights Advocates argued during the two-hour hearing that the board’s plan is not enough and urged the court that the only way to ensure equal access in the long term is for each of the more than 1,300 polling places to have a designated worker responsible for making sure there is adequate signage, ramps and an obstacle-free route to voting booths.
Wolinsky said there were “systemic, pervasive barriers” to access across the system.
“It’s too late for the primary— we’re looking at the general election,” Wolinsky told the court, but he urged the judge to appoint a magistrate judge to serve as a special master on the issue for future elections.
Batts instructed the parties to focus on 37 to 40 of the polling places that have had the most problems over the last few years and report back to her when the hearing resumes on Oct. 15.
The hearing in United Spinal Association v. Board of Elections of the City of New York, 10 Civ. 5653, took place after Batts last month granted the plaintiffs summary judgment on their claims, finding the board liable for violations of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §12131, and §504 of the Rehabilitation Act (NYLJ, Aug. 9)
In August, Batts cited “pervasive and recurring barriers to accessibility on election days” and said the plaintiffs had shown that the Board of Elections has “failed to undertake some feasible measure to improve accessibility, or in other words, that defendants failed to provide disabled voters with reasonable accommodations.”
Yesterday, Kitzinger said the coordinator in charge of each polling site will be equipped with a check list and a chain to measure the width of doorways and the arc of open space around voting booths. Coordinators will ensure that signage is effective, obstacles are promptly removed and problems reported.
“We are confident the coordinators will get it done,” Kitzinger said.
But Wolinsky said poll coordinators have not received enough training, and he urged that every worker be required to take instruction from the Center for Independence of the Disabled (CIDNY), which is the downstate regional office for a federally funded voting access project under the Help America Vote Act.
Despite the city’s assurances it has improved its monitoring and reporting system, Wolinsky urged the judge to insist that one person and one person only be responsible at each site and that person not be the poll site coordi-nator.
“The defendants do not have a very good track record,” Wolinsky said.
Kitzinger said, “The board does not, and has not, ever shied away from its obligations” and the court should realize “it’s never going to be 100 percent perfect.”
Kitzinger outlined the different problems that can arise. He said the board has had to go to court and obtain orders where private property owners who provide polling places fail to cooperate.
Sometimes, he said, school principals relocate polling places inside the school. In one case, he said, “a principal came close to being arrested.” The issue was resolved short of taking the principal into custody and now “there can be no more game playing by principals.”
Wolinsky said that the sample of 37 to 40 polling places from Sept. 14 will simply motivate the Board of Elections to make those places perfect for the primary, saying “it would be stunning” if the board didn’t concentrate on the sites to present the judge with a rosy picture in October.
But the judge said the sample would be a good measure of the board’s efforts, and, if there are extra poll workers staffing the troubled polling places in order to make the board look good when it reports back in October, “Believe me, I’ll hear about it.”
The judge said she understood Wolinsky’s argument that the board is now in a situation where “everyone is responsible and no one is responsible.”
But she also took note that the board was making some progress, and acknowledged how many responsibilities poll workers have on election day, saying “I don’t get the sense the Board of Elections shoves this [issue] like a stepchild into the corner.”
The judge said she would entertain Wolinsky’s request for continuous oversight by a magistrate judge going forward.
“Everything is on the table,” she said.
@|Mark Hamblett can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.