Voting Access for Those with Disabilities Still Lackluster

by Daniel Lawton As the presidential primaries race towards a close, preparations are continuing to ensure that the voting process in the general election in November is as streamlined as possible. One of the major challenges still facing many states is providing equal voting access to those with disabilities according to Disaboom, the largest online community for people living with or touched by disability. Signed into law in 2003, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was designed to revamp a disorganized and chaotic voting system that many hold responsible for the controversy surrounding the 2000 presidential election. Provisions of the legislation include the replacement of punch cards and lever voting machines and the creation of a comprehensive electronic voter database. HAVA also mandates that each polling place have at least one voting system accessible to those with disabilities in a manner that guarantees equal opportunity and access for all voters. The federal government has allocated billions of dollars to the states to implement these changes; but unfortunately voting accessibility problems are still widespread. The Department of Justice was forced to sue the state of New York in 2006 due to its non-compliance with HAVA. On February 4, 2008, a court order allowed New York to use Liberty Election Systems’ touch screen voting machines, which have been highly criticized by those with disabilities. In nearby New Jersey, an April 2007 report issued by the Department of the Public Advocate revealed that up to 40 percent of New Jersey polling places have been inaccessible to voters with disabilities over the last three years—a clear violation of state and federal law. The report cited seventeen polling places that consistently failed to provide adequate access to those with disabilities. Many of the polling locations had steep stairs, no elevators, and no wheelchair accessible ramps. Problems with voting accessibility have been noted in the 2008 primary season as well. During the January 8, 2008, New Hampshire primary, many polling places had difficulty complying with federal disability laws. According to James Fox, an attorney with the Disabilities Rights Center, “only a fraction of poll workers received training in the accessible system leading up to the primary.” The majority of the problems centered on poll workers being unable to accommodate blind voters, who are allowed to cast their votes in a booth equipped with a telephone and a fax machine. Many of the phones in the booths didn’t work, and in others workers hadn’t set up the equipment properly. In addition, in the Super Tuesday primaries on February 5, 2008, only 8 of the 24 states that voted provided voting accommodations for those in nursing homes. The lack of accommodations available to seniors with disabilities drew criticism from disability advocates, as well as Congress. In a Senate Special Committee on Aging, Senators Herb Kohl (D-WI) and Diane Feinstein (D-CA) heard testimony about the disenfranchisement of nursing home residents. According to sources at the hearing, seniors with disabilities are 39 to 48 percent less

likely to vote than those without disabilities. Kohl and Feinstein are urging the Election Assistance Commission to investigate the problem and come up with recommendations to make the voting process more accessible for those in nursing homes. Disaboom is providing a voice for people with disabilities, as well as their friends, family and caregivers by allowing them to ask questions of the presidential candidates. Currently, Senator Barack Obama is the only presidential candidate active on Disaboom, but other candidates are expected to join in the coming weeks. . Visitors to Obama’s Disaboom profile will find his biography, position statements, record on disability issues, a blog detailing campaign events and key statements, video messages, and political forums. For more information, log onto www.disaboom.com.

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