Luzerne Co. reaches settlement to improve polling accessibility
When the United States Attorney’s Office surveyed Luzerne County polling places in 2015, the agency found many of the sites had barriers to access for people with disabilities.
Now, the county is agreeing to make changes, the Department of Justice announced Friday.
Luzerne County agreed to evaluate how each polling place meets architectural standards set by the Americans With Disabilities Act, and to either relocate inaccessible polling places or use temporary measures — such as portable ramps, signs, traffic cones and doorbells — to meet the standards on Election Day.
“The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy,” said U.S. Attorney Bruce D. Brandler. “We applaud Luzerne County’s commitment to ensure that all persons with disabilities
have equal opportunities to vote in person at their polling places alongside their neighbors.”
The ADA’s rules ensure that locations such as polling places are accessible to people with disabilities. Not meeting those standards violates the civil rights of disabled voters who want to reach the polls but have difficulties.
A polling place needs to be accessible on Election Day, whether through the permanent design of the site or temporary measures.
The latest version of ADA rules were published in 2010 and contains nearly 300 pages of standards and guidance for all sorts of places where people might go.
When the U.S. Attorney’s Office surveyed 52 of the county’s 180 polling places during the Nov. 3, 2015, general election, it found violations of ADA standards at many of the polling places.
Many of the problems dealt with parking. Other violations included noncomplying building entrances, hallways, sidewalks and ramps.
In Hazleton, the 2015 survey found accessibility issues at the South Side and 14th Ward fire stations.
At the South Side, the slope of a ramp leading to a back door and the edge of the ramp didn’t meet requirements. Hazleton officials said they lacked funds to modify the ramp. In addition, the parking lot at the South Side station lacked handicapped parking spaces or an access aisle.
The 14th Ward Station also lacked accessible parking and an access aisle. Moreover, the survey cited issues with the sidewalk’s slope and a step and landing at the entrance.
At the Vine Manor highrise apartments, handicapped parking spaces needed demarcation, a summary of polling place survey results attached to the end of the agreement said.
Michael Butera, the Election Bureau’s solicitor, said county officials will make changes so polling places comply with accessibility rules where possible. Otherwise, the county can choose different polling places.
He said different wards might continue to share polling places, and the county could continue to consolidate wards.
Consolidation has occurred over the years, as the name of the 14th Ward Fire Station indicates. Now Hazleton has just 11 wards and eight polling places.
Thirty years ago, Hazleton had 15 wards, which held 24 voting districts, and 19 polling places.
In last year’s elections, City Hall, Our Lady of Grace and the South Side station served as polling places for two wards apiece. The other polling places were Vine Manor, Terrace Plaza, the 14th Ward Station, Most Precious Blood Church and Hazle Twins.
Butera said the county has already completed much of the work that the Department of Justice requires.
It has already evaluated polling places and begun making changes.
The Department of Justice wanted the county to be in full compliance by the end of 2016.
“We said we would love to be, but there was a presidential election, and we expected it to be all that it turned out to be. We knew we’d be very busy with the election, so we asked for the deadline to be postponed to the end of 2017,” Butera said. “(The Department of Justice was) understanding as to our plight. They saw we were sincere in our desire to comply.”
The county began making changes after a documentary by Misericordia University professors looking at accessibility at county polling places. Part of their research uncovered equipment to make places accessible that had been kept in storage and forgotten.
The county began using that equipment, investigating its polling places, and making changes before the DOJ survey, Butera said.
The county didn’t receive any complaints about polling place accessibility in 2015 or 2016, he said.
“We addressed every complaint (the Misericordia professors) made, and we thought we were in full compliance. However, DOJ disagrees. They think (we) can do more, and we will do more,” he said.
Three years before the U.S. Attorney’s Office conducted its survey, Misericordia University professors Melissa Sgroi and Dan Kimbrough visited polling sites in the county during the November 2012 election for a documentary about accessibility.
They found problems then, and followed up with a second look at inaccessibility in county polling place during another election. On that visit, they saw improvements.
When Sgroi pointed out issues to county officials, they listened to her complaints.
“The whole issue of disability rights is overlooked because it is very difficult to see until you experience it,” Sgroi said. “It’s not that anyone is trying to exclude or trying to infringe upon someone’s rights. That’s not the case at all. That was just in perfect alignment with scholarship that shows the world is a very difficult place for people with disabilities.”
The settlement is a victory for people with disabilities, although it’s one she wishes wasn’t necessary.
“Many people were involved in this, but no one raised the issues until we did. It was not even thought about. I’m really grateful we thought about it,” Sgroi said. “The most important thing to me is that polling places are accessible to all people. Absentee ballots are not an equivalent because polling and voting is a social activity. If people aren’t invited into the social sphere of democracy, that is problematic.”
Sharon Horvath of Hazleton casts her votes Nov. 6, 2012, at Ward 3 in the South Side Fire Station. In a 2015 survey, accessibility issues were found at the South Side and 14th Ward fire stations.