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Coalition of Texans with Disabilities

There’s still a lot of work to be done to make it easier to vote

The ease of access for disabled voters is still a huge unaddressed issue.

Val Vera finally cast his ballot after sitting for two hours in his van outside a Denton County polling place. He wasn’t waiting on people in line ahead of him, but for an elections clerk to respond to his phone calls.

Vera, 52, is disabled and decided to vote curbside this election, an option every county is required to offer any voter whose health would be harmed by entering the polls, or who is physically incapable of doing so.

“In an ideal world, curbside voting at your polling site, there’s the designated parking spot,” said Molly Broadway, voting rights specialist at Disability Rights Texas. “There’s a sign that lets you know that this is where curbside voting is going to happen, and there’s a call button, essentially, that one can access, which will alert the poll worker inside the building of your presence.”

For millions of disabled Texas voters, casting a ballot has long been challenging enough, even without a pandemic and explosive turnout in a high-octane election cycle. Using curbside voting, mail-in ballots and other aids, they must navigate a system that in some parts of Texas has been slow to accommodate their needs.

With fears of contracting COVID-19 compelling more voters to explore options to avoid setting foot in a polling place, disability rights advocates say the process has become an exercise in persistence for even more disabled voters.

In 2012, 30% of disabled voters nationwide reported difficulties at polling places, according to a Rutgers University study. In Texas, a newer Rutgers study estimates, about 15% of those eligible to vote in the general election are disabled — almost 3 million people.

Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse, professors who helped conduct the study, said lack of accessibility causes disabled people to vote at lower rates than the general population. Without barriers, they estimate, 3 million more disabled Americans would have voted in 2012. Though it’s hard to determine the extent without solid data, the pandemic could limit people’s access even further.

[…]

Disability Rights Texas tries to help voters navigate hurdles they run into at the polls. This year, Broadway said, increased voter turnout, coupled with increasing visibility for disability rights over the past few years, has spawned more calls than usual, and not just for curbside voting.

Chase Bearden, deputy executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, said his organization heard reports of long lines at one polling place that strayed into grassy patches difficult to navigate in a wheelchair. Matt Plummer, a wheelchair user, said when he went to vote in Tarrant County, his wife had to make selections for him because he couldn’t reach the touch screen at the back of the machine.

Disabled voters in Texas are also allowed to use mail-in ballots, which helps some voters, but those aren’t entirely accessible either.

Kenneth Semien Sr. said he considered voting by mail but decided to go in person. To submit a mail-in ballot, Semien would have to rely on someone else to mark it for him because he is blind. Not only would that strip away his independence, he said, but he also would have no assurance the person was actually marking his choices instead of their own. Semien is involved in an ongoing federal lawsuit against the Texas secretary of state that is seeking more accessible mail-in ballots, and he thought an alternative way to vote would be available by the time November rolled around.

Instead, Semien cast his ballot in person at the same polling location he’s used in Jefferson County for the past 15 years. Once he arrived, a security guard he knew helped guide him through the line, telling him where to walk so he could stop on the taped X’s on the floor.

As he stepped up to vote, he said, the poll worker took a long time finding where to plug his headphones in so his screen reader could read the ballot to him. Such technical issues sometimes leave people unable to vote, and this one almost made Semien miss his bus back home.

Each time before he goes to vote, Semien calls ahead to make sure the polling location will have someone on staff trained to use the accessible voting machine. Typically, he said, he’s told what he wants to hear, but problems crop up when he arrives.

“It is just terrible that you have to keep repeating these things, but every time we go to the polls we deal with some of the same issues, you know, if the equipment is not available for some reason, they hadn’t gotten set up yet, even though I called before,” Semien said.

I searched my archives but didn’t find a post about Kenneth Semien’s lawsuit – there’s been so many voting rights lawsuits this year I just can’t keep up with them all – but I found this story and a copy of the complaint via Google.

A big part of this is voting locations. Harris County settled a lawsuit last year about the accessibility of its voting locations. Our county, led by County Clerk Chris Hollins, did a tremendous amount to make it easier for everyone to vote – usually over the objections and legal obstacles thrown up by Republicans – but it would be good to review what worked and what still needs improvement. This is going to take a law – really, there should be both state and federal legislation to address this – and money, but most of all it will take commitment, both to listening to the community and their advocates, and following through on what they need. We can absolutely improve this experience for millions of Americans, including millions of Texans, but we have to do the work.

Your handwriting should not jeopardize your vote

Jesus Christ.

Texas election officials may continue rejecting mail-in ballots if they decide the signature on the ballot can’t be verified, without notifying voters until after the election that their ballot wasn’t counted, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Monday.

The appeals court halted a lower court’s injunction, which had not gone into effect, that would have required the Texas secretary of state to either advise local election officials that mail-in ballots may not be rejected using the existing signature-comparison process, or require them to set up a notification system giving voters a chance to challenge a rejection while their vote still counts.

Requiring such a process would compromise the integrity of the mail-in ballots “as Texas officials are preparing for a dramatic increase of mail-in voting, driven by a global pandemic,” reads the Monday opinion issued by U.S. Fifth Circuit Judge Jerry E. Smith.

“Texas’s strong interest in safeguarding the integrity of its elections from voter fraud far outweighs any burden the state’s voting procedures place on the right to vote,” Smith wrote.

Before mail-in ballots are counted, a committee of local election officials reviews them to ensure that a voter’s endorsement on the flap of a ballot envelope matches the signature that voter used on their application to vote by mail. They can also compare it to signatures on file with the county clerk or voter registrar that were made within the last six years.

The state election code does not establish any standards for signature review, which is conducted by local election officials who seldom have training in signature verification.

Voters must be notified within 10 days after the election that their ballot was rejected, but state election law does not require affording them an opportunity to challenge the rejection, the appeals court ruling noted.

[…]

Plaintiffs said they will now push counties to voluntarily give early notice to voters whose ballots are rejected for signature-match issues, allowing them a chance to rectify the situation and let their vote count.

“It will affect this 2020 election, so voters will not be notified in time, and so I think the main thing we’re trying to do now is notify counties that ballot boards are not required to give pre-election day notice, but they can,” said H. Drew Galloway, executive director of MOVE Texas, a plaintiff. “We encourage them to follow the original intent of the lower courts here so folks (whose ballots were rejected) can go vote in person, or contest that decision.”

See here for the background. That ruling had been stayed pending this appeal, so in that sense nothing has been lost. It’s another typical hatchet job from the country’s worst court. Let me bullet-point this, because I’m tired and this shit needs to stop.

– We all know that if this had a disproportionate effect on white voters, the concern about “safeguarding the integrity of its elections from voter fraud” would be a mere footnote. Some voters are more equal than others.

– On the very same day that this turd was handed down, a state court in North Carolina ruled that “voters whose absentee ballots have problems with their envelopes can now expect contact from board of elections offices in order to fix their ballots by Election Day”. We need uniform national standards that prioritize and protect the rights and ability of all citizens to vote. That needs to be very high on the to do list of the next Congress.

– Can we please give some serious consideration to packing the Fifth Circuit? Quite a few Trump-appointed judges are there because vacancies were not allowed to be filled during Obama’s terms. This court is in serious need of reform.

– On a more practical note, Drew Galloway is correct: We need to be talking to local election officials to get them to agree to try to fix these problems in advance. The court didn’t say that they couldn’t do this, just that they didn’t have to. Well, if it’s a choice, then let’s make sure they make the right choice.

That’s all I’ve got. This effing court. The Chron has more.

A win for those with lousy signatures

Some good news on the voting litigation front.

As Texas prepares for an expected deluge of mail-in votes in November, a federal judge has found that one facet of the state’s signature verification rules for those ballots is unconstitutional and must be reworked for the upcoming election.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled Tuesday that the state’s process for determining whether there is a mismatch between a voter’s signature on their ballot envelope and the signature the voter used on their application to vote by mail “plainly violates certain voters’ constitutional rights.”

In his order, Garcia ordered the Texas secretary of state to inform local election officials within 10 days that it is unconstitutional to reject a ballot based on a “perceived signature mismatch” without first notifying the voter about the mismatch and giving the voter a “meaningful opportunity” to correct the issue.

Additionally, to “protect voters’ rights” in the upcoming election, Garcia said the Texas secretary of state must either advise local election officials that mail-in ballots may not be rejected using the existing signature comparison process, or notify them that they are required to set up a rejection notification system that would allow voters to challenge a rejection.

[…]

Before mail-in ballots are counted, a committee of local election officials reviews them to ensure that a voter’s endorsement on the flap of a ballot envelope matches the signature that voter used on their application to vote by mail. They can also compare it to signatures on file with the county clerk or voter registrar that were made within the last six years.

But because the state election code does not establish any standards for review, the plaintiffs argued that the law is applied unequally, with each county “necessarily” developing “its own idiosyncratic, arbitrary, and ad hoc procedure to determine that a ballot should be rejected” with no requirement to notify voters about the rejections until 10 days after Election Day.

To correct course ahead of the November general election, Garcia ordered the Texas secretary of state to either halt all rejections based on a “perceived signature mismatch” or implement an “immediate remedial plan” that requires local election officials to notify a voter within one day of determining a perceived mismatch and allow the voter to challenge the rejection.

Under that plan, voters must be mailed notices of rejection within one day of a mismatch determination by the local review board. Those who provided phone numbers on their applications must be called at least once within one day of the decision.

See here for the background, and observe how adorably optimistic I was that this shouldn’t be a partisan issue since both parties use voting by mail. What can I say, it was 2019, you had to be there. I don’t have much to say now that I didn’t say then – this ruling makes total sense, the “standard” that was used was arbitrary and needlessly harsh, and it really is in everyone’s interests to make an effort to count these ballots. I assume Ken Paxton will appeal this because that’s what he does, but until then let’s be happy we got what we got. The Chron has more.

The bathroom bill would affect disabled people, too

Yet another problem caused by this harmful “solution”.

As lawmakers this summer debate yet another controversial measure regulating bathroom use based on biological sex, disabled Texans say they — like many transgender men and women — believe the Legislature is further complicating something that’s already difficult to navigate.

On Tuesday, the Texas Senate advanced Senate Bill 3, which would restrict bathroom use in local government buildings and public schools based on the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate or DPS-issued ID, and gut parts of local nondiscrimination ordinances meant to allow transgender people to use public bathrooms of their choice.

The bill’s author, state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, argues her measure is meant to protect privacy in the bathroom and would dissuade sexual predators from taking advantage of trans-inclusive bathrooms policies.

But for many caretakers and disabled Texans, the issue goes much deeper. Rosanna Armendariz said she fears if a “bathroom bill” passes, people might think her [8-year-old autistic] son is breaking the law — even though the Senate’s version of the measure exempts people with disabilities.

“As my son gets older, someone might get upset and call the police if they see him in the women’s room,” she said. “It’s horrifying to think me or my disabled son could be subject to criminal prosecution just for using the toilet.”

In an effort to address this exact issue, state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, tacked an amendment on to Kolkhorst’s bill on Tuesday exempting disabled Texans from having to use the bathroom matching their biological sex.

Advocates for the disabled say it’s not enough: Not all disabilities are obvious, and even with Lucio’s amendment, they say, a person with a disability would be forced to prove they have one.

“When you look at the word ‘disability,’ it covers a very broad scope of people — from mental illness to physical disabilities to someone who might be in a wheelchair,” said Chase Bearden, director of advocacy and engagement for the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities. “You don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes.”

It should be noted that the version of SB3 that was introduced contained no exemptions for people with disabilities, not even the exemptions that had been in the bathroom bill that the Senate passed during the regular session. “Because of some of the signals we received from the governor’s office, we left [those exemptions] out” was how bill author Sen. Lois Kolkhorst described it. That’s some kid of compassion and empathy right there. The point here is that even with this exemption, the bill is still bad for people with disabilities because it further singles them out and increases the burden on them. It’s bad for a lot of people, in a lot of different ways. I keep thinking we’re going to run out of ways to say that, and then we keep finding new ones.

Lawsuit threatened over special education limits

The clock is ticking.

Disability advocates on Monday threatened to sue the Texas Education Agency unless the state permanently ends its special education enrollment benchmark within the next month.

The advocates said immediate action is necessary because of the “devastating harm” caused by the benchmark.

The state already has suspended and pledged to eventually eliminate the decade-old cap, which punished school districts for giving special education services to more than 8.5 percent of students. But the state has angered advocates by not saying when it will permanently end the policy.

“The time for action to protect and support Texas’s children with disabilities is now,” the advocates from the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities and Disability Rights Texas wrote in a letter to the Texas Education Agency and Commissioner Mike Morath.

Asked to comment on the letter, agency spokesman Gene Acuña said that officials already are working to eliminate the 8.5 percent metric. Changes to the policy should be proposed in the spring, he said.

“As always, we continue to seek input from stakeholders during this process,” Acuña said.

[…]

The letter also outlined the group’s legal theory.

First, the advocates said, the benchmark was inappropriate because states are allowed to monitor school districts “only as necessary to ensure compliance with federal law.” Moreover, they argued, the benchmark actively violated the law “because it directs, incentivizes, and has caused school districts to deny enrollment in special education programs to eligible students.”

The advocates said they would not file the lawsuit if Morath and the agency counter-sign their letter and initiate the process of permanently ending the benchmark within 30 days.

See here for the background; a copy of the letter is in the story. The TEA officially backed off enforcing its policy of capping special ed funding in November, but the policy still remains on the books. From the TEA quote above, it sounds like the deadline given will be too short, so it’s a matter of how much progress they make and whether the plaintiffs-to-be will be satisfied with that. Check back in a month and we’ll see.

Greg Abbott is not an advocate for people with disabilities

Didn’t think this was in question, but let’s review the facts again.

Still not Greg Abbott

“I really strongly believe, and I think most people who are advocates for people with disabilities believe, that a disability is neither a barrier nor an advantage in potentially serving as governor of Texas,” [Dennis Borel of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities] said. “It’s kind of not that relevant.”

What’s relevant is an Abbott proposal to increase the pay for personal attendants who help people with disabilities live in the community, an idea Borel likes.

What’s relevant is a legal issue that Borel has pressed Abbott on since his announcement last year: If elected governor, would he support a proposal to waive Texas’ claims of sovereign immunity in lawsuits brought against the state alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, so people can get their day in court?

Abbott – who as attorney general has asserted the state’s immunity – said no last year through a campaign spokesman. His answer hasn’t changed.

“Granted to the states by the 11th Amendment, General Abbott believes sovereign immunity is not a concept that should be treated casually. It must be vigorously defended, which is consistent with his absolute duty to defend the state of Texas whether he is attorney general or governor,” said spokesman Matt Hirsch last year.

Asked the same sovereign-immunity question, Davis campaign spokesman Zac Petkanas gave only a general answer. “Wendy Davis believes all Texans should be protected from discrimination. She has worked to improve educational and economic opportunities for people with disabilities and will continue to prioritize those issues as governor.”

Borel and other activists expect another chance to press the issue with Davis. She has met with them personally, he said, and has agreed to take part in the Texas Disability Issues Forum co-hosted in Austin by advocacy groups on Sept. 24.

Abbott has declined to attend the forum, “and he has known about it for a very long time,” said Borel. He said he has met with Abbott’s policy director on issues.

Not sure why Davis gave such a non-committal answer to the question, but she has since clarified her position on the matter.

State Sen. Wendy Davis says if she’s elected governor, she’ll support legislation to make it easier for people with disabilities to get their day in court when they’re alleging state violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Responding to a survey by the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, Davis said she would support legislation to waive the state’s sovereign immunity in such cases.

“The ADA is a milestone civil rights law. The majority of states do not seek sovereign immunity from the ADA. Texans with disabilities should feel as secure in their right to be free from discrimination based on disability as people in any other state,” said Davis.

So there you have it. Abbott’s record and position are clear. So are Davis’. This is a no-brainer. Do you still want more evidence of this? Here you go.

More than 50 disability rights advocacy groups and Texas nonprofits have banded together to try to mobilize the state’s more than 3 million disabled residents to vote on Nov. 4.

The groups have created a website promoting a Texas Disability Issues Forum, which will be held in Austin next week.

So far, only Democratic hopefuls seeking the top three statewide offices on the fall ballot have agreed to appear at the Sept. 24 event.

GOP nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general — Attorney General Greg Abbott and state Sens. Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton, respectively — have declining the invitation, citing scheduling conflicts, said event organizer Bob Kafka of ADAPT of Texas.

“We can’t force them to come,” he said at a Capitol news conference.

Organizers, though, have offered to let the let candidates citing schedule conflicts to participate using videoconferencing technology, Kafka said. Organizers also told the GOP candidates’ campaigns that they would let the absentee candidates tape an appearance at an earlier date, he said. Forum moderator Ben Philpott, a political reporter with Austin’s public radio station KUT-FM, would interview them “under the same type of setting,” Kafka said.

“We’re disappointed,” he said, noting the forum is a nonpartisan effort.

Here’s their website; the link is FUBAR’ed in the Trail Blazers post. I freely admit my partisan biases here, but it seems to me that the more these folks vote for Republicans in November, the more they will continue to be disappointed. The Statesman has more.