SCHENECTADY COUNTY -- Schenectady County's election polling places aren't easy for people with disabilities to access, according to a report from a disabilities rights group.
Disabilities Rights New York, a federally funded non-profit organization, found that 94 percent of the county's polling places had accessibility issues, based on visits conducted during two 2018 elections, including the Sept. 13 primary and Nov. 6 general election.
"The [Americans With Disabilities Act] guarantees voters with disabilities the right to fully accessible polling places, however, 94 percent of the polling sites DRNY surveyed in Schenectady County presented at least one barrier to accessibility," the group said in the report.
The issues the group identified included inaccessible parking, inaccessible paths of travel inside and outside buildings, inaccessible entrances, and improper setup of ballot marking devices. Parking lot issues were the most common, as the group said it is common across upstate.
"The issues we find in Schenectady unfortunately are not unique, they are pretty common in other counties DRNY has surveyed," said Christina Asbee, director of DRNY's Protection and Advocacy for Voter Access program. "We have worked with Schenectady County in the past. We presented this report to them and we didn't hear back from them."
Like counties across the state, Schenectady County establishes temporary election polling places in a variety of public and private buildings, including fire stations, church buildings, schools and town office buildings. The DRNY said that between the primary and general elections last year, it was able to visit nearly all the dozens of polling places.
County election officials said that of the 60 Schenectady County poll sites, they use 12 public schools, 22 municipal buildings, fire halls and other emergency buildings, 24 places of worship and community centers, and two adult care facilities.
County elections commissioners Darlene Harris and Amy Hild defended their polling places, and criticized the standards DNY was using to evaluate polling places.
"Our poll sites comply with ADA standards and [Schenectady County] BOE is committed to ensuring access to all voters," they said in an emailed statement. "The report does not provide enough information to identify corrective actions."
They also said they weren't contacted immediately about any issues while the DRNY representatives were visiting polling places on election days.
According to the report, many of those sites lacked adequate parking accommodations. In some, temporary signage directing voters to handicapped spots wasn't on display; in others, the access lane next to the space, intended for wheelchair use, wasn't properly marked or wasn't wide enough. The report also found it was common for large cracks, gravel or mud in the parking spaces to potentially interfere with access.
Hild and Harris said the DRNY was holding the county to an incorrect standard for polling place parking lots.
The report also found instances when paths and doorways at polling places weren't accessible for a variety of reasons, and that in some instances the ballot marking devices intended for use by voters with disabilities either weren't placed for sufficient ballot privacy, or didn't have enough clearance for a wheelchair to access the device.
"In regard to chairs being placed in front of ballot marking devices, ballot marking devices are designed for use from a seated position," Harris and Hild responded. "Some voters with disabilities do not use a wheelchair but require use of a chair while using the BMD. Certainly the chair would be moved when necessary."
The advocacy group said accessibility problems can deprive someone with handicaps of their right to vote. "It disenfranchises people with disabilities, because if there's a barrier that keeps people with disabilities from voting, then they can't participate in that civic duty," Asbee said.
Among the report's recommendations: training for Board of Elections staff and poll workers be improved; polling places be surveyed for any access issues prior to Election Day and on Election Day morning; polling places with steps over one-quarter-inch be beveled or ramped to ADA requirements; pavement cracks be fixed and gravel removed in parking lots and paths of travel; and devices like traffic cones be used to mark temporary handicapped parking and access lanes.
"Both the ADA and [Help America Vote Act] have requirements that all boards of elections have to follow, and we see the same series of violations across the state," Asbee said. "Facilities designated as polling locations across New York may be different, but the laws are the same, and the violations tend to be the same across the state.”
Schenectady County has more than 101,000 registered voters, but there is no way to determine how many of them might have a disability.
Voters with disabilities may file a complaint with the state Board of Elections, and the DRNY offers a tutorial on how to do so on YouTube.