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Voters with disabilities still not being served

By Lisa Tarricone (Original Publication the Journal News: February 4, 2006)

Last November, the state Board of Elections approved prelim inary regulations for the purchase of new voting machines in order to comply with the federal He lp America Vote Act. The draft New Voting Machine Regulations, according to the state, "will ensure meaningful access to the democratic process for all New Yorkers."

Well, maybe not all New Yorkers.

Voters with disabilities in New York maintain that the languag e in the proposed regulations is not comprehensive enough to ensure them full access to the v oting system or the guarantee of a private and independent vote. HAVA requires that voting syst ems "be accessible for individuals with disabilities . . . in a manner that provides the same opportunity for access and participation (including privacy and independence) as for other voters." I n order to equip polling sites with voting machines that are HAVA-compliant, the Board of Elec tions must soon decide what type of voting machines local election boards can buy. The s tate is slated to receive $190 million in federal funds for this purpose.

Although the regulations contain sections on ballot acce ss, machine and paper-trail access and polling place requirements, they do not provide provisions for a range of varying disabilities.

Ballot access under the current regulations does not inco rporate language to address color and contrast or enlarged font size for individuals with vision and cognitive issues. The section on machine access does not include requirements for fully acc essible tactile and audio devices for persons with dexterity and mobility issues. Paper records n eed to be verified privately and independently by voters with disabilities and as such, need to be provided in audio, large print and Braille, none of which is mentioned in the draft plan.

Since HAVA was introduced in 2002, disability rights advocates a nd organizations across the state have worked consistently and conscientiously to part ner with the state board in mapping out accessibility standards for voters with disabilities. Advo cates tested electronic and optical-scan machines and compiled surveys with their recommendations, whic h were forwarded to state officials. Members of a statewide legislative advocacy network attended all the meetings held by the Joint Legislative Committee on HAVA and repeatedly to ld legislators of their concerns that their accessibility needs be considered before drafting a final decision. Voting machine accessibility issues were given short shrift by the Join t Committee during its proceedings.

In addition, HAVA regulations specify that the state board appoint four members of disability rights organizations to a bipartisan committee to test votin g machines. One of the disability organizations filed suit against the board by after it faile d to appoint one of its members. Last month, the state board finally appointed the designated repr esentative, but only after dismissing one of the earlier appointees in what appeared to be a reta liation maneuver due to the lawsuit. To date, a fourth disability representative still needs to be a ppointed to the committee. All other appointees were formally approved by the state board.

On the local front, two leading disability advocacy organiz ations filed a federal lawsuit in March 2004 against the Westchester County Board of Elections for polling-site access violations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Advocates brought the suit after several years of trying to work with the board to help make the county's 440 polling sites accessible to voters with disabilities was ignored. (Of Westchester's 50,000 registered voters, approximately 20 percent have disabilities.) The suit is pending.

Meanwhile the federal Department of Justice has put the sta te on notice with the threat of a lawsuit for failure to implement HAVA by the Jan. 1, 2006, deadline. In a letter to the state Board of Elections and attorney general, the Justice Departm ent said "it is beyond dispute" that New York is not in compliance with the voter registration requirements and voting systems standards. The letter states: "In fact, based on informa tion we received . . . it is clear that New York is not close to approaching full HAVA compliance and, in our view, is further behind that any other state in the country."

It does not appear likely that New York will have new voting mac hines in place by the September primaries. Until the state board adopts accept able voting machine standards allowing for the certification of new machines to be sold in New York , counties are stonewalled from starting to negotiate purchases. And New Yorkers with disabilitie s will continue to be denied full access to their fundamental right to vote privately and indepe ndently as American citizens.

The writer is Systems Advocacy Director for Westchester In dependent Living Center in White Plains.

February 2006
Lisa Tarricone
914-523-8922
Coordinator of Systems Advocacy
Westchester Independent Living Center
White Plains, NY

Westchester Independent Living Center, Inc.
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