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Testimony Before The New York City Council Committees on Mental Health, Mental Retardation, Alcoholism, Drug Abuse and Disability Services, and Governmental Operations

July 22, 2002

The Honorable Marguerita Lopez, Chair, and distinguished members of the New York City Council Committee on Mental Health, Mental Retardation, Alcoholism, Drug Abuse and Disability Services; and the Honorable Bill Perkins, Chair, and distinguished members of the New York City Council Committee on Governmental Operations:

My name is Jim Dickson, Vice President for Governmental Affairs for the American Association of People with Disabilities. I have worked on elections for over thirty years: ten as a volunteer and twenty as a professional. Currently, I am Chair of the Disability Vote Project, a coalition of 36 national disability related organizations, which has worked for three (3) years to increase the political participation of Americans with disabilities. On behalf of the hundreds of AAPD members in New York City, it is a privilege to appear before you today.

The American Association of People with Disabilities is the largest, cross-disability membership organization in the nation. It is dedicated to promoting the economic and political empowerment of all people with disabilities; educating business and the general public about disability issues; and providing membership benefits, such as financial services and product discounts. AAPD was founded in 1995 by a group of cross-disability leaders to help unite the diverse community of people with disabilities - including their family, friends and supporters -- and be a national voice for change in implementing the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act-equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency.

The disability community of New York wishes to thank Councilwoman Marguarita Lopez and Councilman Bill Perkins for holding these hearings and for pointing out the need to make voting accessible for New Yorkers with disabilities.

It is estimated that there are around 1.6 million residents of New York City with some form of a disability. That is over three percent of the populace with a disability in America. Almost 1.4 million of these New Yorkers are of voting age.

Nationally, over 19 million voters with disabilities cast their vote in the 2000 presidential election. This was an increase of approximately 5 million from the 1996 election. Unfortunately, more than 27 million voting aged people with disabilities did not cast a ballot. On the eve of the 2000 election, a Harris Interactive poll, commissioned by the National Organization on Disability, found that about 41% of people with disabilities voted. While this is up from 31% in the 1996 election, it is still far below the national average of about 52% of the public voting.

The low voter turnout of New Yorkers with disabilities is perpetuated by two factors: First, New Yorkers with disabilities are registered to vote at a rate at least sixteen percent lower than the rest of the population. This low voter registration rate exists despite the National Voter Registration Act, or 'Motor Voter Law.' This 1993 law requires disability service provider to offer voter registration to their clients. However, a Harris Interactive Poll reports that only one half of New York agencies are obeying the law.

When Congress passed the Motor Voter Law, it recognized voters with disabilities are unlikely to visit the Department of Motor Vehicles. Therefore, it required that all disability agencies, both municipal and private, offer voter registration to their clients. The voter registration offer is to be made both at intake and recertification, if the agency has such a process. But, most importantly, the offer to register to vote is made as the person receives services, for example, in a support group, or when a mobility instructor goes to the home of a blind person. It is clear that the offer to register to vote as services are being delivered is the point at which the system is most likely to break down. Disability is not a transient phenomenon. Hence, many disability agencies do not have a recertification process. If voter registration is only offered at intake it will take decades to close the voter registration gap.

The committee needs to be aware that the responsibility to offer voter registration through social service agencies goes well beyond Disability Service providers. It includes the broad array of social service agencies, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, and those offices where individuals register for food stamps. These agencies should be offering voter registration opportunities as New Yorkers inquire about receiving services. Currently many agencies offer voter registration only at the point at which services are offered. Both state and federal law make it clear that voter registration should be offered at the time of inquiry. In short, the offer of voter registration to the city's poor is not happening.

The second factor, depressing the turnout of voters with disabilities, is an inaccessible voting system. The majority of Americans take for granted their right to privacy at the polling place. According to the U.S. Census around 10 million voting-aged Americans are unable to able to exercise this right because of visual impairments making it difficult or impossible to see print, even with glasses or contact lenses. According to the American Foundation for the Blind, around 500,000 New York City residents are either blind or have a severe visual impairment. These voters cannot cast a secret ballot, but must rely on the courtesy of family members, friends or even sometimes strangers to cast their vote for them. This is completely unacceptable.

I am blind, yet everyday I walk down the street, catch a bus to go to work, get off at my stop, enter my building, board the elevator, push the button for my floor, enter my office, turn on my computer, download my emails, and begin my day at work. I do this every day, by myself, and millions of others just like myself do these very same things, independently. But when I go to my polling place I have to bring my wife or my twelve-year old daughter with me, because someone else has to cast my vote for me. Once, after my wife cast my ballot, she said to me, "Jim I know that you love me. Now I know you trust me, because you think I'm marking this ballot for that idiot." Twice in Massachusetts and once in California, while relying on a poll worker to cast my ballot, the poll worker attempted to change my mind about whom I was voting for. I held firm, but to this day I really do not know if they cast my ballot according to my wishes. To voters with disabilities, there is always some level of uncertainty when another person marks your ballot for you.

The 2000 election in Florida caused many Americans to wonder, for the first time, if their vote was tallied for the person they intended to vote for. I, and millions of other American citizens, ask ourselves this question every time we vote. According to a Harris Interactive survey conducted in December 2000, 95% of Americans with disabilities, compared with 86% of the general public, believe that we have a serious problem with how votes are cast and counted.

We need accurate, effective, and accessible voting systems. This is exactly what the Shoup lever system, used in New York City and across New York State, is not. In fact, it is the least accessible voting system in the nation, disenfranchising more people, with the greatest variety of disabilities, than any other voting system. It is not accessible to persons who use wheel chairs. It is not accessible to persons with limited hand/arm capacity. It is not accessible to persons with many learning or cognitive disabilities. And it is not accessible to persons who are blind or have low vision. It is arguably the least accurate voting system in use, and is the only voting system I am aware of that cannot provide a paper trail allowing for an accurate recount. These obsolete, inaccessible machines, consistently fail to register the votes of New Yorkers. To cite just one scientific study conducted on these machines, Montgomery County, Maryland documented that one vote out of five failed to be registered by the Shoup lever system. These mechanical machines rely on cogs, which jam, break or wear out, and there are no new replacement parts. For more then fifteen years, broken cogs and other parts have been replaced with used, worn parts. The world's most important city should be ashamed of itself: This equipment is not only inaccessible, it is inaccurate.

New York State currently certifies only this atrocious device. One of the primary rationales for these obnoxious machines is that they offer a so-called 'full-faced' ballot. The superstition holds the 'full-faced' ballot to be fair because the voter sees all candidates. Yet, there is no scientific evidence to support this notion. In fact, there is a considerable body of evidence that argues the opposite. The Shoup's confusing array of multiple columns and rows often intimidates and confuses voters.

The federal government has recognized inaccessible polling places and machines are a major problem. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) has just published federal Voting System Standards, which define for the first time nationally what an accessible voting system must provide. In addition, the FEC is about to develop a set of Election Management Standards, which will include materials to train poll workers on how to appropriately accommodate voters with disabilities.

Both houses of Congress have passed legislation that would provide funds for the purchase of accessible voting machines and other disability accommodations. The legislation is now in conference committee, with the expectation it will be passed before the end of September. Senator Schumer, who serves on the Senate Rules Committee, has played an extremely active role in fashioning, with Senator Dodd of Connecticut, comprehensive legislation that will provide funds to purchase one accessible voting machine for every precinct in the nation.

Money cannot be a reason to purchase inaccessible systems and continue the disenfranchisement of the nation's largest minority, and Texas has already led the way. In 1999, the state legislature passed, and then Governor Bush signed into law, legislation that requires any new voting system purchased to be fully accessible to voters with disabilities. Many other states have passed similar legislation, including Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Maryland. (The Texas legislation and regulations are available on the web.)

Voting systems must offer a secret and independent ballot to voters who are blind or who have low vision. This means a computerized system with a simple adaptation offering an audible ballot so that voters can hear the ballot through headphones. Another adaptation is the use of special switches that allow voters with arm or hand disabilities, who are unable to hold a pen or flick a lever, to cast their ballot privately.

Accessible voting machines are of great assistance to language minorities and to those who have survived our public education system, but have not been taught how to read. The computers can easily handle the four or five languages that the New York City ballot currently provides for. It is a simple matter for the voter to select the language of choice. Many immigrants can speak their native language, but cannot read it. This was true of my Italian grandparents, and it is true for many New Yorkers.

I personally have, on several occasions, used each of these machines, and they all can be programmed so a voter can vote a straight party ticket by pushing a single button. They all notify the voter if he or she has over-voted, and they can all be programmed to notify the voter if he or she has under-voted. There are five manufacturers of such equipment. (See attached list of manufacturers who produce accessible voting systems) Also attached to this testimony are letters from state and local election officials, testifying to the accuracy, dependability and accessibility of these machines.

Several major jurisdictions have already invested in these new voting technologies. In Georgia, there will be one accessible system per polling place in November's election. The State of Maryland has already installed accessible voting systems in four counties - Montgomery, Prince George's, Alleghany and Dorchester - with the promise of another ten counties to follow in 2004, and with the entire state being accessible by 2006. As well, the following counties have all purchased and installed accessible equipment: Riverside and Monterrey Counties, California; Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Indian River Counties, Florida; Harris (Houston), Travis (Austin) and Tarrant (Fort Worth) Counties, Texas; Arapahoe (Littleton) County, Colorado; Clark County, Nevada; and Mahoning County, Ohio. The State of Rhode Island is planning to purchase one accessible machine for each polling place in time for the 2004 election.

New York City should be commended for having over ninety percent of its polling places wheelchair accessible. Especially when one considers that Rhode Island is the only state to have one hundred percent physical accessibility, and eighty-four percent of surveyed polling places across the country were found to have some barrier preventing a person with a disability from voting, according to last year's General Accounting Office (GAO) report. This means voters who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices across the country are unable to enter their polling places.

Federal law currently allows the voter to select who will assist her or him in the polls. However, tens of thousands of voters with disabilities report that this right has been denied - the poll workers insist that they alone should enter the booth along with the disabled voter. I personally have spoken to a half dozen New Yorkers who have told me that poll workers refused to allow a person of the voter's choice to provide assistance. In fact, one blind voter was threatened with arrest if she insisted on using her volunteer reader. Fortunately for this voter, her volunteer reader happened to be an attorney, at which point the poll worker backed down. Poll workers need to be trained on the rights of voters with disabilities, and how to offer assistance in an appropriate manner. (Attached is a brief written guide for poll workers)

The disability community's patience, as we wait for polling places and voting systems to be made accessible, is running thin, and there is a growing body of litigation. In fact, my organization has filed suits against the cities of Philadelphia, PA, Washington, DC and Jacksonville, FL. AAPD hopes that New York City will act quickly to offer a secret ballot to all of its voters, but we reserve our legal rights to litigate and take other actions.

In order to allow citizens with disabilities to exercise their franchise with the same freedom and independence as the rest of the population, the American Association of People with Disabilities submits the following recommendations:

» All polling places must be physically accessible to voters who use wheelchairs and/or have mobility impairments. This is best achieved through a collaborative process where both the disability and elections communities jointly inspect all polling places. Existing polling places should be made accessible, or the polling place should be moved to an accessible location by the deadline of November 2004.

» In every polling place there should be at least one voting device that would offer a secret ballot to all voters with disabilities.

» The election community should conduct a coordinated outreach effort through the disability community in order to recruit people with disabilities to be poll workers. Most election officials report that it is difficult to find people who can volunteer the one or two days a year necessary to be election workers, yet seventy percent of people with disabilities are unemployed.

» Poll workers must be educated about disability etiquette in their training sessions. They must learn how to appropriately serve voters with disabilities. The State of Rhode Island, under the leadership of Secretary of State Inman, has undertaken a major effort to recruit persons with disabilities to be poll workers. The disability community in the state is working closely with the state's election officials to recruit volunteers.

» Any materials prepared by election officials to educate the voter on the candidates or voting procedures must be made available in alternative formats, so that people with visual impairments and other disabilities can listen to or read this information.

On behalf of the Disability Vote Project and the American Association of People with Disabilities, I wish to thank you for the opportunity to testify before the New York City Council Committee on Mental Health, Mental Retardation, Alcoholism, Drug Abuse and Disability Services and Committee on Governmental Operations.

Respectfully Submitted,
James C. Dickson
Vice President of Governmental Affairs
American Association of People with Disabilities
Disability Vote Project

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