Looking to November, Disability Advocates Call for Accessible Polling Places

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A Federal Court Judge will hear testimony Monday about how to make city polling sites more accessible for people who use wheelchairs or have vision impairments.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts ruled there were pervasive barriers at sites — from inadequate signage to locked entrance doors — for people with disabilities.

The suit was filed two years ago, alleging the Board of Elections violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Denise McQuade, who uses a wheelchair, faced several obstacles when she tried to vote in 2010 because her polling place in Bay Ridge was inaccessible.

“The door was hard to get through in a wheelchair and then I immediately faced a steep ramp that was more for deliveries than wheelchairs because it was on an incline and it was impossible to go up or down it by myself,” she said.

It wasn’t the first time McQuade had problems trying to vote. She has encountered a range of difficulties in her more than 40 years of exercising her right to vote in the city — sometimes having to be physically carried down stairs. She has periodically opted to vote by absentee ballot, but it isn’t her preference.

One of the attorneys for the defendants, Julia Pinover, believes that even if people can vote absentee, they shouldn't have to.

"The truth is that voting is a really symbolic act. And to be denied the right to vote in person at your polling place is to have your voice silenced, to be excluded from your community and from having a voice in your country,” she explained.

Pinover said they'll be asking the court on Monday to ensure that the city Board of Elections come up with short term remedies by the November election, which includes having a dedicated supervisor tasked to ensure each site is barrier free for people with disabilities.

In the long term, they'd like to see a system in place where the city moves away from using schools as sites and instead find buildings more universally accessible.

Senior Counsel with NYC Law Department, Steve Kitzinger, who is representing the city’s Board of Elections in the case, said he disagrees with the ruling. “We don’t believe that there widespread barriers to accessibility.” Kitzinger wouldn’t comment further since the case is still pending.