This ought to be interesting.
Harris County, which includes Houston, has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because many of its polling places are inaccessible to voters with disabilities, a new lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice alleges.
Many polling places in Harris County, which were surveyed by the justice department during elections in 2013 and 2016, have architectural barriers — such as steep ramps and narrow doors — that make them inaccessible to voters who use wheelchairs, according to the lawsuit. The county also failed to accommodate the needs of voters who are blind or have vision impairments, the federal government argues.
Voters with disabilities are “being denied the same opportunities as nondisabled voters to vote in person,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in the Southern District of Texas, seeks a judge’s order that would require accessibility improvements to polling places in future elections and training for poll workers about accessibility features. The Department of Justice also seeks changes to the process Harris County uses to select its polling places.
Here’s the DOJ press release and a copy of the complaint. As the story notes, this isn’t about any specific person who was unable to vote, but about structural barriers that are in place at various voting locations, and the lack of action taken to remediate the issue. A look at the letter of finding sent to County Clerk Stan Stanart in September of 2014 illustrates the problems:
In conducting our surveys, we did not review every architectural element at a polling place. We surveyed only those elements necessary to conduct the County’s voting program. We looked at off-street parking, if provided; the route from the parking or the street to the building entrance; the building entrance; the route to the voting area; and the voting area. We did not survey each facility to determine if it as a whole is compliant with either Title II or Title III of the ADA; we only assessed whether each facility is accessible on Election Day or during Early Voting as applicable. Additionally, our survey of the parking area was limited as we did not assess whether the parking area included the required number of accessible parking spaces overall; instead we indicated whether the parking area at a polling place had a minimum of one van accessible parking space. We leave the complete review of parking to the County to determine whether it is in compliance with the 2010 Standards (Sections 208 and 502).
Of the 83 Election Day facilities we surveyed, we found that only 29 were accessible on Election Day. Attachment A lists these accessible facilities. Of the remaining 54 Election Day facilities, we found that 49 were not accessible on Election Day, but have non-compliant elements that could be remedied with temporary measures such that the polling place would be accessible on Election Day. Attachment B lists these non-compliant but temporarily remediable facilities, along with a description of the non-complying elements and the temporary measures that will remedy each non-compliant element.
For the remaining five facilities surveyed, we found that they were not accessible on Election Day, and could not be made accessible on Election Day through the use of temporary measures. Permanent, architectural modifications would need to be made in order for these facilities to be accessible to persons with disabilities. Unless the County intends to make permanent modifications, these five polling places must be relocated to an accessible location. These five facilities, along with a description of the non-complying elements, may be found at Attachment C.
Given the architectural barriers at the County’s polling places, as summarized above and listed in Attachments B and C, the Department finds that the County has violated Title II by failing to select facilities to be used as polling places that are accessible (including making them accessible through temporary measures) to persons with disabilities on Election Day and during Early Voting. The County has provided no information to indicate that inaccessible sites were selected only after determining that there were no accessible facilities that could serve as polling places in the voting precincts at issue, and therefore Title II’s Program Accessibility provisions are inapplicable. We thus conclude that the County’s use of inaccessible facilities as polling places has the effect of discriminating against voters with disabilities and denying them the opportunity to participate in the County’s voting programs, services, and activities in the most integrated setting appropriate, i.e., at their designated polling place and alongside their fellow citizens.
To remedy the deficiencies discussed above and protect the civil rights of individuals with disabilities who seek to participate in the County’s voting programs, services, and activities, the County must, at a minimum, implement the remedial measures identified by the Department as necessary to bring the County’s Election Day and Early Voting into compliance with Title II. As summarized above, Attachment B to this letter specifies the accessibility barriers found at each polling place surveyed as well as the temporary measures the County can take to make the polling place accessible on Election Day and during Early Voting. Attachment C identifies those polling places that cannot be made accessible through temporary measures; the County must relocate those polling places to facilities that are or can be made accessible to individuals with disabilities. In addition, the County must assess the remaining County polling places not surveyed by the Department and determine whether temporary measures or relocation to alternative accessible sites are necessary to bring all of the County’s polling places into compliance with Title II.
Scroll down to see the named locations, two of which are schools, two churches, and one civic association building. These are all precinct polling locations. It may be the case for some that there aren’t viable alternative locations, but that doesn’t address the question of the 49 locations that required temporary fixes to be compliant. I’ll be very interested to see how the county responds to this, and whether a fix is ordered to be in place for November.
UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story:
Buck Wood, who has practiced election law for 40 years and served as elections division director for the Texas secretary of state’s office from 1969 to 1972, said the allegations had implications beyond one special election. Moving polling places has been a longtime tactic to disenfranchise voters living in certain areas, specially minorities and the elderly, he said.
“It is something to be taken very seriously,” Wood said, noting that violations of the ADA at polling locations is not uncommon. “Frankly, Texas jurisdictions, cities, counties and the state, have not really taken it very seriously.”
Stanart, a Republican who is tasked with selecting polling places, said the Justice Department had not provided the county with details about the alleged violations. He said his office would attempt to provide the best experience for all voters.
Stanart said he sometimes has to consider picking a location that does not completely meet every federal requirement in order to make polling places reachable for even more voters.
Wood agreed that this is a difficult situation.
Stanart said that almost all of the locations used in the May 7 election had been used before.
He called the lawsuit politically motivated and said his office had not received any complaints from voters with disabilities who could not access the polls.
“What they are actually asking us to do is disenfranchise hundreds or even thousands of voters for no one,” Stanart said.
Stanart disputed the findings of that letter I quoted above. We’ll see how this goes.