Thursday, May 22, 2014

New York City ordered to make its polling places compliant with federal disability law

How does the Americans with Disabilities Act apply in the real-world? This case -- involving inaccessible polling places in New York City -- tells us how.

The case is Disabled in Action v. Board of Elections, decided on May 14. The district court ruled against the City and issued an injunction to make voting rights more accessible. The Court of Appeals (Cabranes, Hall and Chin) affirms. The Court says that

The deposition testimony of surveyors and individuals with disabilities confirms that barriers to access exist on election days that make it difficult for disabled voters to cast their ballots in person. For example, in 2010 Rima McCoy, the Voting Rights Director for CIDNY from July 2008 to December 2011, inspected, among others sites, the poll site located at P.S. 13 in Queens. When she arrived at P.S. 13 there was no sign at the inaccessible main entrance to direct disabled voters to the accessible entrance. After she located the accessible entrance on her own, she found that the door was locked and the bell did not work. Once inside, McCoy observed that there was no signage from the accessible entrance to direct voters to the voting area or to inform them on which floor the voting area was located. Further, the placement of the ADA privacy booth in the voting area made the booth inaccessible to wheelchair users.
Other disabled voters had similar experiences, including those with vision problems. The Court of Appeals reminds us that state and local governments have to provided the disabled with "meaningful access" to government programs, even if that means the government has to make reasonable accommodations for them that do not cause an undue financial or administrative burden on the government.

While the City argues that no voters have been deprived of the right to vote as a result of barriers to poll site accessibility, the Court says that "Plaintiffs need not, however, prove that they have been disenfranchised or otherwise 'completely prevented from enjoying a service, program, or activity' to establish discrimination under Section 504 [of the Rehabilitation Act] or Title II [of the ADA]." The government fails the "meaningful access" test because plaintiffs are unable to fully participate on election day. "To assume the benefit is anything less -- such as merely the opportunity to vote at some time and in some way -- would render meaningless the mandate that public entities may not afford[ ] persons with disabilities services that are not equal to that afforded others." In addition, "By designating inaccessible poll sites and failing to assure their accessibility through temporary equipment, procedures, and policies on election days, BOE denies plaintiffs meaningful access to its voting program." And, while some plaintiffs were able to vote thanks to the help of others, "The right to vote should not be contingent on the happenstance that others are available to help."

The City argued that it reasonably accommodated disabled voters by reassigning them from inaccessible polling sites and remedying barriers as they were made aware of them on election days. But the City offered no evidence that it transferred voters to better sites or told them about the possibility of such a transfer. And the ad hoc approach to solving election problems was proven inadequate.

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