Department of Justice files supporting brief in disabled voters case
With the September 2013 primaries approaching, the fight for better access for disabled voters continues in the courts. Last year, Manhattan Federal Judge Deborah Batts ordered the New York City Board of Elections (BOE) to remove barriers at polling sites that hinder access to disabled voters.
After the city’s expected appeal, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Preet Bharara, on behalf of the United States Department of Justice, deemed it necessary to file a brief in support of disabled voters.
A 2011 survey conducted by the Center for Independence for the Disabled (CIDNY), an organization authorized to train and certify poll-site surveyors, discovered that 84 percent of New York City poll sites contained at least one significant barrier for voters with mobility or vision disabilities. A number of these polling sites are within Brooklyn neighborhoods.
The plaintiffs, United Spinal Association and Disabled in Action, argued that the BOE discriminates against registered voters with mobility and vision disabilities because it fails to ensure that polling places are accessible on Election Day. Their arguments persuaded Batts to issue an order requiring the BOE to focus on approximately 40 polling places that have been cited as having the most egregious lack of access for disabled voters. Of the approximate 40 polling places, nine are located in Brooklyn.
“The BOE failed to take steps to make its voting program readily accessible to and usable by voters with disabilities, as required under the [Americans with Disabilities Act],” Bharara said in his friend of the court brief.
The city argued that the plaintiffs did not specifically identify a disabled voter who was unable to cast a vote. Bharara discounted this argument, recounting the story of wheelchair-bound Brooklyn voter Denise McQuade, who was unable to cast a vote at the polls in September 2010 because of “a ramp that was extremely steep — like a ski slope” at her polling place in Bay Ridge.
That McQuade was “was afraid to go back to try and vote there during subsequent elections” was evidence, according to Bharara, that McQuade and many like her were “deprived of meaningful access to … voting [in NYC].”
“We are pleased with the Justice Department’s support in the case and urge the Board of Elections to comply with the law,” said Stuart Seaborn, staff attorney for Disability Rights Advocates. “New Yorkers with disabilities deserve an equal voice in our political process, and voting at poll sites is a fundamental American ritual that no one should be denied.”
A spokesperson for the city Law Department said in a statement: “We believe that the District Court’s orders are incorrect, and are confident that the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit will find that the Board of Elections has not violated the Americans With Disabilities Act or the Rehabilitation Act.”
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