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Post date: December 29 1999

Suit Filed In Federal Court Over Inaccessible Polling Sites

Attorney General Spitzer today filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Schoharie County for failing to provide polling places that are accessible to persons with disabilities.

At the same time, Spitzer announced that his office has settled with neighboring Otsego County and entered into a consent order under which the county will modify all its polling sites by early January 2000.

The actions follow a comprehensive investigation by the Attorney General’s office of the accessibility of polling sites throughout the region. Last month, Spitzer filed a similar lawsuit against Delaware County for non-compliance with state and federal accessibility statutes.

“New York’s Election Law provides that its polling places be accessible to all voters,” Spitzer said. “My office will continue working to ensure that the civil rights of the individuals with physical disabilities are protected.”

In 1998, the Attorney General’s Civil Rights Bureau conducted a survey of more than 100 polling sites in Schoharie, Delaware, and Otsego Counties. The survey was conducted with the assistance of the Catskill Center for Independence, an independent living center in Oneonta. The survey examined the three general requirements of parking, entrances, and interior.

The results of the survey demonstrated that almost all the polling sites in Delaware, Schoharie, and Otsego Counties were in violation of state and federal accessibility standards. For example, at many sites, the entry door was insufficiently wide for a wheelchair, there either were stairs and no ramped entrance or the ramped entrance was unsafe and otherwise noncompliant, and there were no designated parking spaces for persons with disabilities.

Spitzer said many of the inaccessible polling places could be made fully accessible with minimal expense and some of the polling places can be made temporarily accessible for election days with virtually no expense. For example, many polling places simply need to designate the appropriate number of parking spaces and post signs at the appropriate height. Other polling places only need to change a door handle, put up a handrail on a ramp, and/or level the area between the ground and the ramp.

The lawsuits against both Delaware and Schoharie Counties charge that the Counties, their Boards of Election, and their respective election commissioners violated various federal and state laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the New York State Election Law, by failing to provide accessible polling sites to the disabled.

New York State is unique in that its Election Law requires each polling site to have at least one entrance that provides access by ramp or other means. The federal lawsuits, which seek various forms of relief, are intended to ensure that Delaware and Schoharie Counties’ polling sites come into full compliance and are accessible to the people with physical disabilities for the State’s Presidential Primary on March 7, 2000.

In Otsego County a settlement has been reached. The County has agreed to make a number of modifications to its polling sites so that all of its sites will be fully accessible to individuals with disabilities. The terms of the agreement are subject to federal court monitoring for the next five years.

Disability rights activists applauded the lawsuit and settlement. Richard Zachmeyer, Executive Director of the Catskill Center for Independence said: “Everyone should have the opportunity to exercise their right and responsibility to vote in a fully integrated environment with their family, friends, and neighbors.”

Spitzer noted that in addition to ensuring that persons with disabilities can vote, the changes required under the law would benefit other individuals with mobility problems including the elderly.

The lawsuit and proposed consent order were filed today in U.S. District Court, Northern District in Albany.

This matter was handled by Assistant Attorneys General Carrie H. Cohen and Tynia D. Richard of the Attorney General’s Civil Rights Bureau under the direction of Bureau Chief Andrew G. Celli, Jr. and Deputy Bureau Chief Mark G. Peters.