Barriers at polls hinder disabled New York voters: judge

NEW YORK Wed Aug 8, 2012 6:53pm EDT

A sign is seen outside a polling place in Brooklyn, New York April 24, 2012. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

A sign is seen outside a polling place in Brooklyn, New York April 24, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Thousands of disabled New Yorkers have faced "pervasive and recurring barriers" when trying to vote at the city's poll sites on election day, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

District Judge Deborah Batts in Manhattan ordered the city's Board of Elections to appear before her later this month to discuss possible remedies in time for November's presidential election.

Her ruling came more than two years after a pair of nonprofit organizations sued the city for failing to ensure proper access for disabled voters.

In her decision, Batts granted the groups' motion for summary judgment, concluding that no reasonable jury could possibly find in the election board's favor.

The United Spinal Association and Disabled in Action accused the city of failing to take meaningful steps to fix serious accessibility problems at numerous sites throughout the city, even after inspectors noted barriers during several primary and general elections.

Most poll sites are inside public schools, which often do not meet accessibility standards for the disabled.

The judge said there was "copious documentation of barriers at poll sites, ranging from ramps that are unsafe or missing to missing signage and improper placement of voting equipment and furniture in voting areas."

In one example, a wheelchair-bound Brooklyn voter, Denise McQuade, began using absentee ballots because the ramp at her local site was too steep and dangerous, Batts wrote.

According to Batts' ruling, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are nearly 500,000 New Yorkers with ambulatory difficulties and more than 145,000 with vision difficulties, more than half over the age of 65.

Disability Rights Advocates, a legal group that represented the two organizations in the lawsuit, has suggested assigning a specific on-site worker at each polling place to monitor accessibility, an idea Batts said she supported.

"This is a basic civil right that every American should have undeniably protected," said Julia Pinover, the lawyer who argued the case for the disabled advocates, adding that the only long-term solution would be to use fully accessible buildings for poll sites.

In a brief statement, city lawyer Stephen Kitzinger said the city was "disappointed" in the ruling.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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