Second Circuit Says NYC Must Comply With Order to Address Polling Place Accessibility

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[Image courtesy of yourdailyexperience]

The beleaguered New York City Board of Elections is under fire yet again – this time from the federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled last week that the City isn’t doing enough to make polling places accessible for voters with disabilities. The Associated Press has more:

A lower court judge acted properly when she ordered changes at New York City polling places to improve access for the disabled, a federal appeals court said [May 14].

The written decision by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan came in a lawsuit filed in 2010 on behalf of more than a half-million New York residents with mobility and vision disabilities.

Judge Deborah Batts ruled in 2012 that the New York City Board of Elections had failed to adequately provide for the disabled. She ordered various improvements to remedy complaints in the lawsuit that there were unsafe ramps, missing signage and obstacles including steps that prevented the disabled from accessing voting locations.

The appeals court said Batts ruled correctly and that her order requiring remedies was a “proper exercise” of her authority. A three-judge panel agreed that the Board of Elections fails to provide the disabled with meaningful access to the city’s 1,300 polling sites.

In its ruling, the Court of Appeals noted that the City had failed to properly survey or identify polling places with accessibility problems:

[The City’s] evidence and arguments … reveal that although it has some procedures and policies in place to accommodate individuals with disabilities, these accommodations consistently fall short. Moreover, the record suggests that in practice these mechanisms may not receive high priority or, in any event, have proven difficult for BOE to implement. (By way of example, while BOE maintains that it has attempted to survey poll sites over the past several years, it presented no evidence of these surveys. Indeed, the fact that it has only labeled two of 1,300 sites inaccessible, but also concedes that prior to election days 30% of facilities it uses for poll sites are inaccessible, suggests that BOE has much work to do.) (p.33 and n.16)

To its credit, the Court did recognize the challenges involved in making polling places accessible for voters – especially the role of the trial court in providing “prudent oversight” – but notes that success first depends on the Board of Elections following through on its own responsibilities:

We recognize … that providing meaningful access to individuals with disabilities in a large, crowded city with inaccessible facilities is not an easy task that lends itself to simple or singular solutions. Hence, the district court’s supervision should recognize that there are many ways BOE may meet its statutory obligations and focus on building and strengthening BOE’s capacity to identify and address the accessibility issues its program confronts. Indeed, the very success of the remedial order depends, in part, on BOE’s ability by December 31, 2016 to develop and implement its own plan to work towards providing meaningful access to all of the voters that its serves. (p.42)(emphasis added)

This ruling is a huge victory for advocates for people with disabilities – but everyone concerned should recognize that the work of making real polling places accessible for real voters with disabilities has barely (if at all) begun.

Stay tuned.

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