Luzerne Co. reaches set­tle­ment to im­prove polling ac­ces­si­bil­ity

The Hazleton Standard-Speaker - - FRONT PAGE - By BILL WELLOCK Staff Writer

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.

County re­sponse

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.

Inac­ces­si­bil­ity

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.”

STAN­DARD-SPEAKER FILE

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.

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