Polls about to open — but not for all

New York City’s polls will open on Tuesday at 6 a.m. for the primary vote to decide nominees for mayor and other public offices — but not, in all cases, to the disabled.

At Sedgwick Community Center in the Bronx, a long ramp with a vertiginous 28-degree angle stands in the way of anyone attempting a climb in a manual wheelchair.

Federal guidelines state that the slope of a ramp for the disabled should not exceed 4.76 degrees, or a drop of 1 inch for 12 inches of floor.

Photo: Sebastien Malo

Manuel Fereira sits next to a ramp that leads to a Bronx voting site — and is too steep for many wheelchairs to mount. Photo: Sebastien Malo

In 2012, a federal judge ordered the New York City Board of Elections to work with a group aiding disabled New Yorkers to survey poll sites around the city. (The Board of Elections has filed an appeal of that ruling.) The Sedgwick ramp caught the attention of a surveyor with the Center for Independence of the Disabled, Michael Fuller, during the elections last November.

Fuller took to measure the ramp leading to this poll site with an app on his smartphone.

“Long, steep,” he wrote telegraphically in a logbook. “Check slope of ramp.” It turned out to have a drop of about 1 inch for every 1.8 inch of floor.

Fuller remembers thinking, “You got to go up that ramp, and that’s not going to happen if you’re in a wheelchair,” he said.

The judge’s order arose from a lawsuit by advocates for people with disabilities, who alleged “pervasive, ongoing, and inexcusable discrimination” by the Board of Elections against mobility- and vision-impaired voters.

In May, Judge Deborah Batts of the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York ordered the Board of Elections to take measures to make all poll sites accessible on voting days, and to designate and train one worker at each site as an accessibility coordinator.

The judge also called for a survey of “as many polling sites as practicable, with a goal of no fewer than 120 polling sites every two months” by an independent expert, with regular reports back to the court and the plaintiffs.

Yet the Sedgwick poll site, in a towering brick housing project at 1553 University Avenue, will be used again during Tuesday’s primary, the potential run-off and the subsequent general election, according to the New York City’s Board of Elections’ online poll site locator.

A receptionist at the Sedgwick Community Center said the ramp remains the only way in to the building for disabled visitors entering from University Avenue, and that it hadn’t been modified since the last election. It is described as “Accessible — with equipment” on the Board’s site locator.

Sedgwick Community Center is one of about 1,200 sites citywide where New Yorkers will cast their votes.

Another five sites in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan that are marked as inaccessible in a document submitted to the court and in data that the Board made public after the judge’s order last year will be used as polling sites during this election. Board spokesperson Valerie Vazquez said that the two sites in Brooklyn — Dr. Susan McKinney Nursing & Rehabilitation Center and Intermediate School 96 — had since been made accessible, though she did not specify how, and said she was awaiting further information on the other three.

Analysis of current poll locations suggests the Board of Elections has relocated at least three dozen polling centers that were labeled in the court document “inaccessible” or “not [to] be used in upcoming elections.”

The Board could not provide a verified number of relocated poll sites. The spokesperson said the board had moved sites to improve access for this election cycle as well as for the November 2012 election “after surveys were conducted.” The Board now informs voters that “99% of all city polling sites are now barrier free, however, problems remain at some sites.”

Typically, the Board has responded to accessibility challenges with measures such as installing a temporary wheelchair ramp, or with other temporary or permanent fixes. Ballot marking devices will be available at all sites, as required by federal law. And disabled New Yorkers can also cast an absentee ballot by mail.

About 32,000 permanently disabled voters in New York City have registered with the Board of Elections and are eligible to receive absentee ballots. In her ruling, Judge Batts noted that the U.S. Census has counted roughly 490,000 adult New Yorkers living outside institutions who have difficulty getting around, and another 145,000 who are vision-impaired. 

The Board of Elections has not yet delivered reports assessing poll sites for accessibility, says Stuart Seaborn, an attorney for plaintiffs United Spinal Association and Disabled in Action. In her May order, Judge Batts required these to be produced at two-month intervals, dating back to January 2013. The court has assigned the firm Evan Terry Associates to conduct the reviews.

“We are concerned about progress, given the importance of the upcoming elections,” Seaborn said.

The New York City Law Department attorney representing the Board of Elections was not available for comment. The CEO of Evan Terry Associates declined to comment.

Democracy is at the heart of access to poll sites, said Lisa Schur, an associate professor in the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations who specializes in disability issues.

An inaccessible site “sends the message to people that they are not fully welcome in the political sphere, “ Schur said. “And it can discourage people from voting at all.”

In a recent paper for the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, Schur pointed to a flurry of studies that have measured serious underrepresentation of disabled in U.S. elections. In a survey Schur and colleagues conducted following last year’s November elections, they found about one-third of disabled voters in the continental United States had difficulty voting, Schur said.

Americans with disabilities are as much as 21 percent less likely to vote than the non-disabled, Schur said, though they register to vote at almost the same rate as non-disabled people.

“It clearly means that we don’t have full representation, because a number of people don’t have their opinions represented,” Schur said.

While the court awaits the independent reviews, surveys by the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York, suggest obstacles persist. During the 2012 November presidential election, volunteers visited 132 poll sites in Manhattan and Brooklyn and found that just 24 were free of barriers. The most commonly cited problem was insufficient space for wheelchair users at the ballot-marking device location.

In its annual surveys over the last decade, the group has reviewed a total of more than 800 poll sites and found inadequate compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and other improper challenges in 76 percent. Center for Independence of the Disabled is the designated downstate New York office helping assure disabled voters access to polls under the federal Help America Vote Act.

Wheelchair-using voter Susan Scheer, who works for a local government office, found that her Manhattan polling site was inaccessible the hard way last year, when she was forced to fill her ballot on the hood of a car outside the polling station.

Four steps off the sidewalk stood in the way of her right to vote in private at P.S. 40 near Stuyvesant Town. With no ramp, Scheer was stranded on the sidewalk and cast her ballot via affidavit.

She received a letter some six months later that said her ballot had just been certified and counted.

“I didn’t have any influence on the outcome at all,” she said. “It’s very disturbing.”

She is now among the voters who have been assigned to a new poll site with increased accessibility. Scheer said she received a notice two weeks ago stating that her voting location has been moved a few blocks away, to East Midtown Plaza on East 23rd Street. The site is labeled as “Accessible — with door clerk(s)” on the Board’s online poll site locator.


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