Assuring Access for All NYC Voters, Council Supports Recommendations for Improved Poll Worker Assistance Training and Inter-Agency Coordination Measures

September 28, 2010, City Hall – Following city-wide reports of voters with disabilities facing difficulties accessing poll sites and receiving incorrect or inappropriate instructions while voting, Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn and Governmental Operations Committee Chair Gale Brewer today endorsed a series of recommendations issued by Center for Independence of the Disabled (CIDNY) to improve poll site access and operations for New Yorkers with disabilities. The recommendations are largely the results of a citywide poll site operations and access survey conducted by CIDNY.

“Every voter must be given equal opportunity to exercise their right to vote,” said Speaker Quinn. “It is unacceptable that any voter be discouraged from voting because they are unable to appropriately access their polling site. Additionally, poll workers must be better trained to inform voters about the new ballot marking device technology and assist with the use of the devices, if needed. The City Council stands by the recommendations made by the Center for Independence of the Disabled and looks forward to working with them and the appropriate local agencies to improve New York City’s Election Day procedures for all of our city’s voters, especially those with disabilities.”

“The new voting machines mark a watershed for our city. But they also impose new responsibilities,” said Governmental Operations Committee Chair Gale A. Brewer. “We must make sure that every voter counts equally, and remember that a new technology is only as good as the expertise of those trained to use it. I call on improved training not only for poll workers but also poll watchers to ensure that disabled voters have a full and fair experience on election day.”

“Unfortunately, CIDNY’s study once again highlights the need for more attention to be paid to improving access at poll sites for people with disabilities,” said Council Member G. Oliver Koppell, Committee Chair on Mental Health, Mental Retardation, Alcoholism, Drug Abuse and Disability Services. “During the most recent primary election, I heard from various sources about voters in wheelchairs being turned away due to inaccessible locations, poll workers refusing to allow voters to use the ballot marking devices (BMDs) for people with disabilities and of slow responses from the Board of Elections to repair inoperative BMDs. It has now been nearly 8 years since the Help America vote was signed into law. People with disabilities are rightly frustrated and it’s time demand a much higher standard of compliance from the Board of Elections.”

“During the 2010 primary election, CIDNY sent teams out to survey 53 randomly selected polling sites in Manhattan and Queens. Of those 53 sites, 42 (or 80%) had barriers that would prevent voting by people with disabilities,” said Susan Dooha, Executive Director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled. “This is the 12th election-day survey CIDNY has performed since 2003 with strikingly similar outcomes. On the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, CIDNY is calling for systemic changes to ensure that voters with disabilities are no longer disenfranchised by lack of training on disability access and voting technology, locked doors and blocked pathways, and lack of coordination by City agencies charged with providing facilities for voters.”

Specifically, CIDNY’s recommendations to improve accessibility for disabled voters include:

• Training poll workers to use Ballot Marking Devices. The Ballot Marking Device (BMD) is designed to assist disabled voters in marking their paper ballot and may be used by any voter needing extra assistance. Poll workers should pass an evaluation demonstrating their ability to assist voters wishing to use a BMD. CIDNY surveys indicated a consistent lack of training among poll workers resulting in their inability to help voters who choose to use a BMD.

• Teaching poll workers that any voter may utilize a Ballot Marking Device. Although Ballot Marking Devices are designed to help any voter, CIDNY found that poll workers discourage voters from using the Ballot Marking Devices, especially when voters do not seem to have a specific visible disability. Through increased public education and poll worker training, the Board of Elections should promote the use of the Ballot Marking Device for any voter, including for those who have difficulty reading the small print and/or filling in ovals on the ballot.

• Train Polling Site Staff to Use the Department of Justice Accessible Poll Site Checklist. New York City Board of Elections Assembly District Teams should be trained on the Department of Justice Accessible Poll Site Checklist to ensure that they can identify recurring accessibility barriers. CIDNY surveys show that polling site staff are not sufficiently trained to eliminate these barriers. Board of Election staff should be required to pass a checklist test to ensure that they can identify and remedy common accessibility barriers. The Department of Justice Accessible Poll Site Checklist can be found here:

• Increase Inter-Agency Coordination between the Board of Elections and the Department of Education in Creating Accessible Polling Sites. According to CIDNY, the majority of accessibility barriers are found at public school poll sites. BOE and DOE should work more closely to remedy problems of accessibility. Often times these problems include easily removable debris blocking paths and entryways, doors improperly propped open, missing signage to accessible entries, and other easily remedied barriers at no or low cost.

• Develop individual accessibility plans for each polling site and each Election Day plan. Although the New York City Board of Elections has developed general plans for poll site set-up, these plans ignore accessibility challenges that can arise at individual sites. The Board of Elections should develop individual schematics for each polling site that ensure accessibility for both primary and general elections. Often times different rooms are assigned to different elections. For example, during primary elections schools may not use open spaces like cafeterias or gyms as their polling site and will instead locate voting areas in inaccessible auditoriums or hallways.

In addition to supporting these recommendations to assist voters with disabilities, Speaker Quinn and Committee Chair Brewer sent a letter to the New York City Board of Elections, the Department of Education, and the New York City Police Department, demanding the agencies take a number of steps to both examine what happened during the most recent primary election day and to prevent future failures from happening.

Specifically, the Council called for the following:

• A comprehensive examination to be conducted by the NYPD and Department of Education to identify when and at which locations workers failed to show up and as a result caused late openings of their polling sites;
• Reporting on what disciplinary measures will be taken in response to workers who did not show up when and where they were assigned to;
• The Board of Elections compiling all incident reports that were filed during the September 7, 2010 Primary Day elections and making the reports publicly available on the Board of Elections website; and
• A new reporting system to be implemented for the November 2010 general elections that will document all Election Day operations at each polling site, also to be made available to the public.

The Council is asking that the agencies prepare the requested information prior to the Council’s upcoming oversight hearing on the issue, scheduled for Monday, October 4th. In addition to the concerns raised in today’s recommendations to improve access for disabled voters, the Council will also examine issues of voter privacy, machine problems, disenfranchisement and inadequate poll worker training,