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Toby Cole

Harris County settles ADA voting rights lawsuit

Chalk up another accomplishment for our new county overlords.

The U.S. Department of Justice will monitor Harris County elections, at county expense, for up to four years under the settlement of a federal lawsuit over inadequate access to polling places for voters with disabilities.

Commissioners Court approved the 15-page settlement during at its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday. The item originally was designated for a closed-door executive session, but court members simply agreed to First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard’s recommendation they sign off on the deal.

Under the agreement, Harris County will have to make minor accessibility improvements to as many as 300 of its 750 regular voting sites, hire two outside election experts to supervise balloting and designate an in-house Americans with Disabilities Act compliance officer. The county does not have to concede it has violated the ADA in past elections.

“It’s a fair settlement,” Soard said. “It’s a reasonable way to conclude this litigation.”

Toby Cole, a quadriplegic attorney who almost exclusively represents wheelchair users, said the settlement and extended federal supervision are essential because disabled voters often are reluctant to complain about problems they encounter.

“They don’t want to make a huge fuss,” Cole said. “So, you don’t vote the first time, then the second time. We cut things out of our lives already, and voting is one more thing to say is too difficult.”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said after the meeting she is confident the county will be able to show the federal government much sooner than four years it is capable of running an election in which each polling place meets ADA guidelines.

“We’ve got a court, and a county clerk, and a county attorney that are committed to equitable access to elections,” Hidalgo said. “We’re all working to make sure we adhere to that settlement.”

[…]

Monica Flores-Richart, whom County Clerk Diane Trautman hired in January as the county’s ADA compliance officer, said the office will re-examine each polling place. In most cases, she said problems can be identified and addressed quickly.

“We’re not talking about permanent improvements,” Flores-Richart said. “If there’s a gap of a certain size in the sidewalk, you need to put a mat down. Those are the kind of things we’re talking about.”

The settlement requires the county to submit a new ADA compliance plan to the Justice Department within 120 days. The county also must hire at least 20 contractors, or use county employees, to monitor each countywide election.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’ve expressed a modicum of sympathy for the County Clerk in the past regarding this litigation, which was filed in August of 2016 following a letter of finding in 2014, but if this is all it took to settle the case, I have to wonder why it took so long. Well, okay, I know the answer to that, and it has to do with whose picture you see when you load up the harrisvotes.com website. But seriously, this should have been wrapped up long before now. Be that as it may, kudos to all for getting it done. I share Judge Hidalgo’s confidence that Harris County can complete the terms of the settlement in less than the time allotted. The Trib has more.

ADA voting rights lawsuit update

Interesting.

A federal judge in Houston put Harris County on notice Friday that the scope of accessibility violations at local polling places could be so vast that a special master may be needed to sort them out.

U.S. District Judge Alfred H. Bennett said he is considering an independent review of the county’s 765 polling locations to ensure they are accessible to disabled voters.

The revelation, which could have far-reaching consequences for the county’s voting system, came to light during a routine hearing Friday in a civil rights suit filed several months before the November general election.

“We’re talking about something that really needs an intensive review,” the judge told the teams of lawyers in the courtroom. “There’s no blanket order I can give. We’re going to have to look at almost each of these sites or on a site-by-site basis.”

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a federal lawsuit last year, accusing Harris County of violating the constitutional mandate that voting sites comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Among the violations cited in the lawsuit – in a county with more than 400,000 people with disabilities – are a lack of appropriate parking, ramps, sidewalks, entry ways, voting space and other mandatory accommodations.

The judge’s remarks drew praise from disability rights advocates.

“Bringing in a special master is monumental because you’re saying there is a problem and it needs to be watched,” said Toby Cole, a Houston attorney who has closely watched the case. “It would be a significant move to make sure that the rights of people with disabilities are protected, and voting is probably the most fundamental of those rights.”

[…]

Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, who oversees local elections, said the lawsuit is frivolous, politically motivated and centered on insignificant technicalities at sites the county doesn’t own.

“When the DOJ brought this lawsuit they had zero people who were complaining,” he said. “To the best of my knowledge, we don’t know of anyone who had an issue.”

Among the locations the Justice Department cited was the multiservice center at West Gray, which Stanart said was supposedly in violation “because if you were a 6 ½-foot blind person who came in the back door, your head would brush a limb.”

In another case, Stanart said, a handicapped parking spot had stripes painted, but the handicap sign wasn’t in the right place.

“Do they think these voters are idiots?” he said.

Stanart said his office picks the best location to serve voters in each precinct and believes, overall, that the county is largely in compliance.

Lex Frieden, a professor of rehabilitation at Baylor College of Medicine who helped President George H.W. Bush with early drafts of the Americans with Disabilities Act, said he thinks the county should be proactive about fixing problems or amenable to making the changes the Justice Department has identified.

“I’m mystified about the defensiveness of the county,” said Frieden, who uses a wheelchair.

See here and here for the background. I have some sympathy for the county’s position. The original complaint indicates that most of the voting sites are compliant or can be made compliant with temporary fixes. There are only so many places that can be used for voting sites, and there may not be good alternatives in some places that would also satisfy requirements for minority voter access. On the other hand, the Americans with Disabilities Act is over 25 years old, and to say the least the county has a spotty record of civil rights compliance in other areas, like, say, bail practices. There’s only so much benefit of the doubt that they deserve, and given that a number of these problems could be fixed by basic infrastructure upgrades like sidewalks, there’s no reason why the county can’t take a proactive approach to resolving this. And yes, I know, these are city sidewalks and streets, but last I checked they were also in Harris County. Let’s get a comprehensive review of what the problems really are and how much it would cost to fix them, and figure it out from there.

Tweaking the Houston rideshare ordinance

From KUHF:

Uber

A task force looking into improvements to the city of Houston’s ordinance regulating vehicles for hire, including Uber and other ride-share companies, made recommendations to a city council committee Tuesday.

A key proposal is to adjust the requirement that 3 percent of a transportation company’s fleet provide wheelchair access.

Toby Cole, who chaired the Transportation Accessibility Task Force, said that number should apply to companies with 20 or more vehicles.

“For fleet with two to 19 vehicles, during the 2017 year, they would be required to have one WAV vehicle – which would be a wheelchair accessible vehicle,” Cole said. “And single operators after 2018, when they brought their next car on service, would be required to have one WAV vehicle.”

Alternatively, companies could opt to contract with drivers of wheelchair accessible vehicles.

Council will debate these potential changes in September. Access for disabled riders was a major point of contention during the Uber/Lyft debate, and Uber initiated a new service a year ago to address that. There have been two lawsuits filed locally against Uber over compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act; I don’t at this time know where either of them stand. Whether this change would address or resolve any of the issues in those complaints is unclear to me. I hope there will be some more coverage of this when Council debates the proposal.