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Harris County sued over disabled voting access

This ought to be interesting.

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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.

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17 Comments

  1. Ross says:

    Shouldn’t the owners of the listed properties be responsible for the required alterations? If they are out of compliance for voting, aren’t they out of compliance in general?

  2. Neither Here Nor There says:

    Ross, probably correct if they are public buildings, however that does not relieve the county from finding places that can accommodate.

  3. Mainstream says:

    Is this part of a DOJ strategy to keep Texas under pre-clearance for the entire Voting Rights Act under Section 3?

    Many of these sites are older schools or churches in low income neighborhoods. If these locations refuse to continue to be voting sites, the voters in those areas will really be inconvenienced.

  4. Neither Here Nor There says:

    Blame the federal government for everything, seems that old trick from the Republicans is getting old. While I admit that I don’t know if those are the locations that are being looked at, but I would find it hard to believe that other sites are not available, could be the low rent the county pays for the use of the building?

  5. Ross says:

    Apparently churches are generally exempt from ADA, although their use as polling places might remove that exemption. Same thing for HOA clubhouses that are generally private.

    My guess is that no one involved in the poll location selection process ever paid any attention to ADA issues. It will be interesting to see how the County responds.

  6. voter_worker says:

    Ross, the base issue is that there are instances of voting precincts not blessed with available ADA-compliant polling places. In an unrelated but illustrative example, I can point out many examples of City of Houston sidewalks that aren’t ADA-compliant, but that doesn’t mean that the City pays no attention to the issue.

  7. Neither Here Nor There says:

    I am curious Voter_worker, can you name one precinct that would not have any places that are not ADA compliant? I remember a garage once, could still be, being used for voting.

  8. Ross says:

    I didn’t make my point clearly, which is I don’t think there was any malice in using non-ADA compliant polling places, but more a matter of no one ever thought about it as an issue, especially when some of the polling places have been used for decades.

    Looking at the polling places that are in section C, a couple of them appear to have no real alternative for a poll location without moving well outside the precinct. That’s certainly a solution, but the question then becomes, how does that impact the ability of other voters, who may not have transportation and have always walked to the poll, to vote? Would a possible solution be to survey all of the voters in a precinct to determine whether any of them actually require an accessible location?

  9. Bill Daniels says:

    I’d call this another unfunded mandate from the federal government that ends up costing the taxpayers more money. Of course, if you don’t pay taxes, why should you care? It seems like it would be a lot easier and make a lot more common sense for anyone that needs special help to be served on an individual basis. Instead, no doubt what will happen is mass disruption for voters that will end up making it more difficult for people to actually vote. Law of unintended consequences…..again.

  10. Ross says:

    Bill, I don’t think this is an unfunded mandate, it’s an enforcement action under a law that’s been around since 1992. However, many of the places used for polling are exempt from ADA for their normal function (I do wonder how the schools manage to escape full ADA compliance, though). When they start serving a public function, the ADA kicks in. Most of the non-compliant places have simple remedies. The ones in section C don’t, and will need some thought to replace without hurting other voters.

    One of the goals of the ADA was to ensure that folks with disabilities aren’t treated as special, but as full members of society who just need some accommodations to lead as full a life as possible.

  11. voter_worker says:

    @Neither Here Nor There You will note that I used the qualifying word “available”. The mere fact that a voting precinct may have one or more structures that are ADA-compliant within its boundaries does not mean that those structures are automatically suitable for use as polling places, or if they are that their owners are willing to rent space to the County for use as a polling space. In addition, from what I’ve heard, it doesn’t take much of an infraction for a facility to be on the DOJ non-compliant list. A crack in the accessible path of travel wider than 1/2 inch, a missing van-accessible sign in the parking lot, a ramp that is a smidgen over the maximum slope limit, door knobs instead of accessible handles on the door(s) into the voting area, a room in a school that is an excessive distance from the accessible parking spaces are all infractions that may land a polling place on the DOJ problem list.

  12. Neither Here Nor There says:

    Ross, one can only get to the “available” when we first find out which pcts are in question. I know that when people vote in such places it is not uncommon for a pct judge to take a portable voting machine to the person that is disabled, so provisions are made for those instances. But I don’t know enough about the lawsuit.

  13. voter_worker says:

    I suggest that you examine the DOJ documents if you want to know specific precincts.

  14. Bill Daniels says:

    @Ross:

    I get what you are saying, and I generally agree with the spirit of the law, as it relates to citizens’ interaction with government. What we have here, though, is more of a letter of the law, Pharisee style dispute. Are there a bunch of disabled people complaining about the way they are treated when it comes to voting? Is this lawsuit a response to people actually not being able to vote? I’m thinking no, because if it were, we would have heard complaints in the local news coverage.

    The other question I have is, was Harris County given a list of deficiencies and given some time to correct them, or was the lawsuit the initial notification of grievance?

  15. Neither Here Nor There says:

    Voter worker, seems that you don’t know the pcts either, the complain does not state which pcts were surveyed, since I don’t have access to the exhibits, I though you would know which ones were in question.

    But after reading the complaint it seems that the county is using a large percentage of voting places that are not ADA compliant about 30% were compliant. The county was notified about the deficiency in 2014 and it seems has not done anything to remedy the situation.

    I guess the county can either find other places or pay to make them compliant as required by law. I think the county pays $100 per day for non-county sites, at least that is what they pay our civic club for the use of the building per day.

    One of the 89 locations surveyed, seven were early voting, and one of them was not ADA compliant.

    So voter worker, I admit that I could not know without the specific pcts in question, I admitted that. Again if you know the pcts and the early voting location that is not ada compliant will you tell me?

    Since the survey was done during a special election of Senate District 6, I will assume that the pcts or in minority areas. A question could be asked if some of the more well do do districts have the same level of non-compliance?

  16. voter_worker says:

    I proposed what I suspect is the general cause of the problem and didn’t intend to imply that I know which precincts are deficient…I don’t so please stop asking me. Are you implying that something nefarious is going on? I personally don’t think so but perhaps the lawsuit proceedings will answer the questions posed here in these comments.

  17. Ross says:

    The specific precincts in section C aren’t listed, just the voting locations. The location at 6113 Jensen appears to be the polling site for precinct 344, here’s the precinct map https://www.hctax.net/images/Precinct/Precinct%200344.pdf Looking at Google Maps aerial view, there do not appear to be any other suitable locations in that precinct.

    Jefferson Davis HS is being torn down, so there will have to be another location found, if there isn’t one already.

    The location at 4718 Littlecrest is precinct 254, map is at https://www.hctax.net/images/Precinct/Precinct%200254.pdf and there appear to be other locations

    HISD needs to bring Cage elementary into compliance

    The location at 12127 Teaneck is not far from a San Jacinto College location that would be suitable. It’s in precinct 475 map here https://www.hctax.net/images/Precinct/Precinct%200475.pdf

    If the County Clerk has had the original letter since 2014, and done nothing, then shame on Stan Stanart.