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Unequal Access to Polls in New York – Judge Could Act Today

November 13, 2007

New York, NY – New York won't be ready for next year's Presidential balloting -- at least, not when it comes to equal access for voters with disabilities. A federal judge could rule as early as today to force the state to comply with the "Help America Vote Act." It's a law that has earmarked millions of federal dollars for the state, to be spent making sure that New Yorkers with disabilities can count on equal access to the polls.

However, U.S. District Judge Gary Sharpe has already ruled that the equal access plan from New York lawmakers falls short. Aaron Belisle is the Voter Education and Access Coordinator for the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York (CIDNY). He hopes the judge acts on that finding.

"We would like the judge to tell New York State that the activities these past few years have been unacceptable and that they need to have meaningful plans, that actually have positive steps towards full compliance with the law."

A CIDNY survey of 50 polling sites during the last election found that 40 of them, or 80 percent, had at least one significant barrier to access, a result Belisle says has been typical over the past five years.

Helen Benlisa, of the Catskills Center for Independence agrees. She complains that, even when the state does make a plan, it isn't always carried out by the polling stations. In the last election, for instance, she says parking spaces that were supposed to be for voters with disabilities were reserved instead for poll workers.

"And they actually covered over the signs that say, 'Accessible Parking,' designating handicapped parking. So there's a lot of misuse and misconceptions about what the priorities are for accessibility."

Belisle adds the federal government provides plenty of money for the state to guarantee equal access to the polls.

"It's very frustrating for us to now go into another Presidential election next year and not have the chance to vote like everyone else and then to have the state talk about, maybe, 2010 or maybe 2012 as a time for compliance."

The New York State Board of Elections admits it is not in compliance, but blames the predicament on rules that are complex.

Michael Clifford/Eric Mack, Public News Service - NY