With more than 900,000 people in New York City living and working with disabilities, it is important that they are able to exercise their voting rights without impediments. In partnership with the Center for the Independence of the Disabled in New York (CIDNY), my office has analyzed and investigated current policies and practices of the New York City Board of Elections and New York City Department of Education (DOE) to conclude that many accessibility issues remain unresolved due to the lack of specific agreements and standards between the New York City Board of Elections and the Department of Education.
This violates a federal district court order to bring about improvements for disabled voters. To my dismay, inadequate signage, non-ADA compliant ramps, narrow doorways, and poorly-placed voting machines are preventing hundreds of thousands of people from exercising one of our most basic rights as Americans.
It is my conclusion that New York City is not doing enough to ensure this underrepresented population is able to access full voting rights.
Of roughly 1,400 Board of Election-assigned polling sites in New York City, half are DOE schools.
During the federal primary election held in New York City on June 24, 2014, the Office of the Public Advocate and CIDNY visited six polling sites. Through this site visit, it was evident that navigating these voting locations would be incredibly difficult for an individual with physical disabilities.
Additionally, my office identified inadequate signage and poorly-placed voting machines as potential problems for voters with disabilities. Furthermore, the Ballot Marking Devices ("BMD machines") and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) privacy booths lacked the mandated clearance space for disability access and voter privacy.
The ADA prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities receive the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstreams of American life, which includes participating in government programs and services.
To be clear, there needs to be better coordination between the Board of Elections and the DOE to ensure ADA compliance. The Board of Elections ultimately has the burden to make sure that DOE complies with its instructions for Election Day protocol. A 2012 federal court ruling held that the Board is required to provide ADA coordinators at each polling site during elections, a ruling that has apparently not been fully-enacted.
A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Board and all designated polling sites must be put into place. The MOU must require pathways to be clear of obstructions, ensure access doors to poll sites be unlocked during polling hours, and require that poll equipment remain in a designated room for the entire duration of Election Day. Additionally, I recommend including increased poll site inspections on Election Day, expanded training and more designated-ADA coordinators.
Voting is a fundamental right in our democracy. Implementing these recommendations can help New York City eliminate concerns raised by voters with disabilities, and would strengthen our electoral process to ensure fairness, transparency, and equity.
For further information, please review The Office of the Public Advocate and CIDNY's report "Improving Voting Access for New Yorkers with Disabilities" here.