News from the



Voters with disabilities face discrimination nationwide

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Scholars tell Supreme Court that states continue to
violate Constitutional right to vote

Dismal access statistics

Secret ballot? What secret ballot?

A non-voter's story

"My polling place is not wheelchair accessible," says Oakland, California resident Denise Sherer Jacobson, author of The Story of David.

"During my first years in the neighborhood, I would go to that polling place, rain or shine, and wait to grab someone going in or coming out so they could notify a voting official in my party that I was there.

"The official brought out the ballot and would poke out the holes (we still have that primitive method in California) where I indicated my choices on the ballot card.

"California ballots have long, complicated propositions," she continues, "and there were several I paused to think about. At one point the official tried to advise me on how to vote. To which I responded that he wasn't supposed to do that. Of course he thought my indignation was cute -- he gave me one of those patronizing 'hee-hees.'

"I now vote at home, which is even more difficult, costly, and time-consuming. Either my paid personal assistant, my husband (who, like me, also has cerebral palsy but is better at poking holes than I am), or my 13-year-old son (we turn it into a civics lesson) helps me with the ballot card.

"However, I do hand in my sealed ballot at the same inaccessible polling place," she adds. "I refused to mail it with my own stamp. Voting is a right that supposed to be free!"

In the September/October issue of Ragged Edge, our special section on the history of discrimination against people with disabilities noted that all states at one time or another have had laws forbidding people with cognitive disabilities from voting. Despite the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and specific voting rights laws, people still face sometimes insurmountable problems when they try to exercise the U.S. citizen's Constitutional right to vote with a secret ballot.

One voter's allegedly "accessible" polling site in La Canada Flintridge -- "a pretty high-end suburb of Los Angeles," he says -- isn't really accessible at all: "you have to go up two flights of stairs." They're short flights, he says, but they're still steps.

The man, who wishes to remain anonymous, says he can vote absentee, so he does. So do Peg Banak and her sister of North Tonawanda, New York: "Do we go to our polling places? No; because, still, in the year 2000, my polling place is not wheelchair accessible!"

It's in "an elementary school that does have a ramp, but the ramp entrance is locked on election days," she adds. "It's illegal, but no one cares."

A 1999 study of three upstate counties in New York found fewer than 10 percent of polling places fully compliant with state and federal laws.

Polling booths are set in church basements or in upstairs meeting halls where there is no ramp or elevator. There are no reliable statistics on how many disabled people nationwide vote by absentee ballot, but in the past few weeks we've gotten our share of horror stories as to what folks who have tried to get out and vote have encountered.

What secret ballot?

"There's no such thing as a secret ballot when you're voting at a table in the midst of other voters walking all around you, walking to and from their secure voting booths," says Shea Hales of Corpus Christi, Texas. The Bryan, Texas polling site Hales visited when in college "had no accommodations for wheelchaired voters. All they could do was hand me a ballot and send me to a table to fill it out.

"This was years after the enactment of the ADA, but they were still surprised to even see someone in a wheelchair, let alone someone who wanted to vote!"

The issue of privacy seems, from all we heard, to be an issue that precinct workers take very lightly. It may be this issue, more than physical access, that frustrates and humiliates disabled voters into simply staying away from the polls.

"Because our polling place uses paper ballots, I have to have one election judge from each party with me when I vote," says Lolly Lijewski of St. Paul, Minn., who's blind. "One reads the ballot and marks it while the other watches. Usually the individual is an older person who reads in a loud voice and repeats my responses so that anyone in earshot will know who I've voted for. So much for privacy!"

Ron Lucey, head of the Austin, Texas Mayor's Committee for People with Disabilities, writes to us about his experience in voting in "a city election with a very controversial referendum regarding city benefits for domestic partners.

"The media had covered this issue for weeks leading up to the election," he writes. "When I went to vote in that election, an elderly woman was sworn in to read the ballot to me." (Lucey is visually impaired.)

"At the end of the ballot when she said I was finished, I asked her about the 'domestic partners' referendum, since she had not read it. 'Don't you remember, you voted against that one,'" he recalls her telling him.

"Of course I hadn't even had that item read to me," he continues. "At that point I did not know if the election judge was dishonest or incompetent. However, from that day forward I have always had doubts about the accuracy and validity of my votes."

Lucey says he has "had neighborhood election judges who have sworn an oath not to show bias or influence in reading the ballot give favorable or encouraging comments to me based on how I was voting while they were reading the ballot.

"One election judge attempted to recruit me for his local political party based wholly on the way I cast my vote. If I had been allowed to cast a secret ballot as called for in our Constitution, he would never have had the insight into my private political beliefs."

A "final indignity," he reports, is having election judges "physically touch me in a condescending manner while assisting me. I do not need someone to wrap their arm around me and praise my every voting decision." Lucey says he awaits the day when Texas adopts an accessible voting system that will "free him from these indignities and restore my confidence that the vote I cast is accurate and valid."

Fred Shotz, head of ADA Consulting Associates in Florida, went to his polling site, which had a threshold he had to "jump over" in his wheelchair. "The polling equipment was placed so close to a pool table in this city recreation building that I could not get to the table to register.

"After several minutes of my making a stink, two poll workers finally moved some of the voting equipment so that I could get in.

"After registering I asked for an accessible voting table and got stared at. I explained that I could not reach the table surface to read the ballot and put the pin holes in the proper places.

"A few minutes later someone figured out how to take the table out of the frame and placed it on a lower table for me, where several poll workers were sitting. I asked, in a none too friendly way by then, if I did not have the right to vote in privacy!

"After some grumbling the four of them got up and walked across the room. While I was in the middle of voting one poll worker who did not like having to stand called across the room, 'Aren't you done yet?'"

A voter in the upper peninsula of Michigan told us he hadn't been able to get any privacy either. Because the table was inaccessible and the stylus "impossible for me to use," he had to ask for help, which made "anonymous voting impossible."

"We need our privacy," says Andy Warber. While serving as a precinct judge, he says, he noticed "a lot of seniors and disabled voters used the tables that were in the room" rather than voting booths. None of the tables was equipped with a privacy booth, he added. They received no complaints, but he brought the matter to the attention of the election auditor anyway. "From my conversation with him, I was never really was impressed that he was too concerned."

Sandra Williams, who voted for the first time in the 1996 election, says she didn't realize that she wouldn't be able to cast her ballot in privacy by herself. Her first inkling of trouble came when the poll worker asked the friend who'd driven her to the poll, "What's her name?" The friend, says Williams, told the poll worker that she did not speak for Williams, who's blind.

" 'She can't do this alone; you'll have to go in and do it for her,'" Williams reports the poll worker saying, still to her friend rather than to her.

"I never even touched the ballot," says Williams.

Williams said that a few years earlier an accessible polling machine had been on display at City Hall. But when she inquired as to whether the city had purchased any, she was told that "it was not a sound investment since there were so few blind people voting."

Studies show that people with disabilities are interested in government and public affairs and want to participate in the democratic process. But because they are often locked out of the polling booth they stay home on Election Day. A study by researchers Kay Schriner and Douglas Kruse shows that people with disabilities are 10 percent less likely than non-disabled people to register to vote -- and 20 percentage points less likely to vote.




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