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Feds Accuse Harris County of Not Making Polls Accessible to the Disabled

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Late last week, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Harris County for what it said was the county's failure to make various polling places accessible to people with disabilities.

In the lawsuit, the DOJ argues that Harris County has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act at multiple polling locations and throughout multiple elections, citing infractions such as too-steep ramps or gaps in sidewalks and walkways, making it difficult for a disabled person to navigate the facility.

"Like all voters, individuals with disabilities deserve the opportunity to vote at their local polling place — where they can greet neighbors, meet candidates and discuss the issues in their community," Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said in a statement. "But many voters with disabilities in Harris County lack equal access to this basic and most fundamental right.”

The DOJ's investigation of Harris County's polling places concluded during the May 2016 special election for the state representative District 139 seat, but dates back to the January 2013 special election for the Texas Senate District 6 seat.

By September 2014, the DOJ issued its first report to Harris County election officials detailing its findings: Of 86 polling locations, only 29 were in full compliance with the ADA, which was passed in 1990 to ensure that disabled Americans had the same rights, opportunities and access to buildings and amenities as non-disabled people. Five locations would need full-on construction overhauls to fix the problems, while the remaining 52 locations could be easily remedied with quick-fix solutions, such as portable ramps. The DOJ suggested that if the county simply relocated some polling spots and added these temporary fixes where applicable, everything would be good to go.

Harris County, however, considered the DOJ's investigation to be bogus — and that opinion has not appeared to change since the DOJ filed its lawsuit, apparently resorting to litigation because Harris County refused to cooperate.

In a letter provided to the Houston Press by Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, the county refuses to agree to a settlement with the DOJ, in which it would work with the feds to make sure all locations were accessible to disabled people. The reason: Officials believed they were already in compliance with the ADA, and that the DOJ not only bullied them by threatening to file a lawsuit, but that the federal agency also was incompetent during its investigation.

The letter considers many of the DOJ's claims — including that some locations did not have van-accessible parking or others lacked wheelchair-friendly entrances — to be simply incorrect, saying that apparently the DOJ didn't look hard enough to find those things on the property.

In an interview with the Press, Stanart said the investigation “makes no sense” and that there are no grounds for this lawsuit. He at first called it “politically motivated,” but pressed as to what the DOJ's ulterior motive may be, he modified his description, saying, “I don't know if it's exactly politically motivated; maybe it's bureaucrats justifying their existence. I don't know. But they have lost common sense.”

He added: “On top of it, they're very, very nitpicky, to the degree that, if a handicapped parking space isn't wide enough for two inches, they ding us for it. If a van-accessible parking space has the stripes to be van-accessible beside it, but the sign does not say 'van accessible' but only 'handicapped parking,' we get dinged for that. It's just amazing to me.”

Stanart, who is responsible for choosing polling locations, said he is concerned that by relocating some polling spots, he will end up disenfranchising many more voters because he will have to move the location outside of the voters' precinct in order to comply with the ADA. After all, he said, if any of the buildings really were inaccessible to people with disabilities (he said he is aware of none), those persons could simply vote by mail or request curbside voting, and election officials will bring the machine to them. He says the county has received no complaints from disabled people anyway.

“We have zero voters who have complained. Advocacy groups who have an agenda are maybe talking to the media. Do you understand there are organizations that make money off wanting to use taxpayer dollars so they can have a job?” He continued, “I don't think the advocacy groups know what the issues are here. They're relying on what the DOJ put out there that is so full of errors.”

Molly Broadway, of the Houston office of Disability Rights Texas, told us her office has received roughly a dozen complaints about polling place accessibility in Harris County following various elections since 2012. Broadway, the staff's Help America Vote training and technical support specialist, said among the complaints were that disabled voters were not able to use wheelchair-accessible polling stations once inside, that they needed perhaps a folding chair to sit in while standing in too-long lines, and that they were promised curbside voting — only to show up and be told it was too much of a hassle and would take too long to bring a machine out. (Broadway said the woman in the last case was ultimately able to persuade the election workers to provide it.)

Broadway said that simply thinking that disabled people can mail in their votes or use curbside voting isn't acceptable. "If that's their choice, we want people to exercise their right to go vote in person," Broadway said. "Fifteen percent of people who have disabilities in this country don't vote. Part of that is because of the non-accessibility of polling site locations...Just because the election office has not received complaints does not mean they're not there."

At the end of the interview, Stanart conceded that Harris County's polling locations "aren't 100 percent perfect, but are pretty darn close," and that he would remain committed to making sure the polling locations are in compliance with the ADA.

And to fighting the feds in court.

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