Blair works to meet ADA standards for polling locations

When Sarah Seymour of Hollidaysburg goes to work, she often totes a carpenter’s level, a tape measure and a camera.

Seymour is the director of elections in Blair County, and she is dealing with special circumstances that require those tools for a job that more often requires knowledge of Pennsylvania voting laws and the ability to organize and train hundreds of workers who oversee two elections annually.

Blair County is in the middle of a large and unusual project because commissioners in February reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice in which they agreed that by the Nov. 4 General Election each of the county’s 97 precincts will be housed in facilities that conform to standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

This means that all of Blair County’s 83,963 registered voters, including those using wheelchairs and walkers, the visually impaired, the deaf and those with other disabilities, will be able to go to the polls and cast their ballots without pause.

The issue dates back to 2008 but became more acute in 2012, the last presidential election, when the Justice Department sent investigators here to visit 82 precincts housed in 71 locations.

Commissioner Diane Meling, who serves as liaison with the county’s Bureau of Elections, said many people wondered who were those individuals taking pictures and visiting the local polls.

It was reported some residents even thought they were U.N. inspectors presiding over the American election much in the same way inspectors go to other less stable countries to make sure voting is carried out in a fair and impartial manner.

The inspectors’ report showed there were 50 Blair County precincts that did not meet ADA standards but could be made temporarily accessible on Election Day by improving things like parking and sidewalks and installing cones, signs, ramps and doorbells.

The Justice Department concluded there were nine locations that could not be temporarily fixed and Blair County would have to find new voting sites.

Seymour, who has been election director for just over a year, has been busy the past couple of months because federal inspectors did not get to 15 of the county’s precincts during the 2012 review.

She has taken her level to record slopes of the parking areas and ramps to see if they meet ADA standards, her measuring tape to record the width and height of doors and her camera to take pictures of all accommodations for the disabled.

While the list of precincts for her review began at 15, three more were added to the list because they recently replaced existing precinct locations.

The facts, figures and photos of those 18 voting locations were send to the Justice Department on Friday.

Seymour said the Justice Department will determine if they pass muster, can be temporarily fixed or will have to be relocated.

She said last week that she believes possibly six of the voting locations will have to be relocated, including Frankstown Township’s 3rd Precinct at the municipal building which handles more than 3,000 voters each election and is the largest of the county’s precincts.

Seymour is preparing for the May 20 primary and said she will address the relocation problem this summer.

But, she said, all of the changes recommended in the original 50 precincts and the possible 15 relocations have to be completed by the fall election.

But she is confident Blair County is up to the task.

She made one point in Blair County’s favor. Many temporary accommodations were in place for the 2012 election but were not witnessed by the inspectors because they were put in place on Election Day but were not in existence the day before or day following the election when many of the precincts were visited.

Issue began in 2008

How the precinct accessibility problem became an issue for the Justice Department is somewhat of a mystery to county officials.

The first hint came in a letter, delivered by Federal Express, dated Aug. 11, 2008, and addressed to Shirley Crowl, former director of elections. It stated, “The Department of Justice has received a complaint alleging that several polling places in Blair County were inaccessible to persons during the 2008 presidential primary election held on April 22, 2008.”

The letter went on to state that, if true, the violations “may” violate Title II of American with Disabilities Act of 1990.

The county was informed that the Justice Department had opened an investigation, but the letter stated, “Our goal is to impartially investigate and to work with you, if necessary, to reach a productive and amicable resolution.”

The department then asked for a sizable amount of information: from the addresses of all the local polling places to a description of how ballots are cast in the county, lists of policies and procedures for selecting precincts, policies associated with ADA compliance and a list of all accessibility complaints.

Crowl and her successor in office, Ingrid Tucker-Healy, began working on the problem, but it was a slow process because the county’s few election workers also have the daily duties of registering voters, maintaining registration records, training hundreds of poll workers, finding new precinct locations and tending to the voting machines.

Also communication between local election workers and Elizabeth Johnson, senior trial attorney for the Justice Department’s Disability Rights Section, often took time, according to Blair County Solicitor Nathan W. Karn.

During the initial period, Seymour became deputy director of the Election Bureau and finally director after the death of Tucker-Healy from colon cancer nearly 15 months ago.

Voting problems arose

David Brown, an employee of the Center for Independent Living in South Central Pennsylvania, 1019 Logan Blvd., an Altoona-based organization that advocates and provides services for the disabled in Blair, Cambria, Fulton, Huntingdon, Indiana and Somerset counties, said he knows what happened and why the federal government became involved.

Brown said six years ago “one of our consumers” went to a Blair County polling location. She was using a motorized wheelchair, but her polling location was in the basement of the building and the only way for her to gain access to the voting booth was to get out of her chair and use a stair glide to the polling area.

But what could she do when she got to the bottom of the stairs? Her chair wasn’t available.

Disabled people should not be required to get out of their chairs to gain access to the polls, Brown said.

As it turned out, a poll official had the woman fill out an absentee ballot while she sat in her chair outside the polling site.

Another disabled voter was unable to get to her polling location and was also issued an absentee ballot. She also had to vote outside her polling location while sitting in a car.

“Voting is not a privilege. It is a right,” Brown said.

An advocate for the voters who could not gain access to the polls because of their disabilities became incensed and began “working the telephones” and the complaints “filtered up” to the Department of Justice, Brown said.

Brown was asked why he thought those voting procedures utilized by the poll workers to accommodate the voters in wheelchairs violated their civil rights?

“Do you want to vote on a street corner?” he retorted. “Separate but equal is not equal access. … A person in the community voting at home or on the street is like having a segregated lunch counter.”

The disabled have a right to be integrated into the community, Brown said.

The center’s executive director, George A. Palmer III, said, “This is important.” He said that in 2014 there should be nothing that segregates one person from another “for any reason.”

“We should be better,” Palmer said.

For the disabled, he said, “It is rough out there.” Many don’t understand how difficult life can be for the disabled. Brown explained that a large number of the disabled “are living lives of silent desperation out there. They are poor. They are cold in the winter, hot in the summer, hungry, generally being ignored and looked down on by society.”

There are an estimated 24,000 people with disabilities in Blair County, Palmer and Brown said.

This is why, they said, voting access is important.

A monumental task

Meling said the effort to bring the county’s polling sites up to ADA standards is a “monumental task.”

She called the initial letter from the Department of Justice “pretty mind-boggling,” but in the past few years, Blair County’s election officials have not hesitated to begin the work that must be done.

Ramps have been constructed. The county paved an area of the Blue Knob Airport so voters with wheelchairs would have smooth access to that polling location.

The county has purchased and made signs.

The assistant director of the Blair County Highway Department, James A. Oberneder, displayed a room full of signs that will be used to designate parking for the disabled on Election Day. The room contained large signs that said “Vote Here, ” to make sure those coming to the polls are aware of where to enter the precinct site.

“It’s a work in process,” said Oberneder, but he said Blair will be ready for the November deadline.

He said the May 20 primary will be a warm-up.

Oberneder said Blair County has received almost $39,000 through the federal Help America Vote Act to help with accessibility improvements.

In 2008 expenditures amounted to $2,000. In 2012 expenditures were $34,347.

While many of the problems have been ironed out. there have been points of disagreement. Meling said that federal inspectors not only missed many of the accommodations for the disabled, but in some cases examined the wrong doors at the precinct sites.

She pointed out the department at one point suggested all disabled vote at one location, which didn’t account for the rural nature of many Blair County precincts and the distances that would have to be covered.

Another problem arose when the height of a roof over the door at the Knights of Columbus in Hollidaysburg’s 6th Ward was said to be too low by an inch. Meling said the two sides were able to resolve that issue through discussion and the building continues to be used as a precinct.

The settlement agreement reported for the record “The county denies the Department’s allegations [that the civil rights of the disabled were being violated].”

That being stated, Meling and Karn agree that improvements needed to be made.

“It’s an event that happens twice a year [voting]. We don’t want to prevent anyone from coming to the polls. It is our goal to make voting as easy as possible and make sure everybody has access. I like to think we have come a long way to improving accessibility. It will be an ongoing issue,” Meling explained.

Work continues daily

Meanwhile, Seymour, with help from the Highway Department and her assistant, Patricia Steward, are working daily on the issue.

Seymour is enthused and loves the challenge. The Johnstown native, who was a political science major at Edinboro University, once worked on a political campaign and has worked for the attorney general. She jumped at the chance to join the Election Bureau when it advertised for an assistant director.

Her job right now is to measure: to make sure handicapped parking spaces are at least 96 inches wide with an aisle for a wheelchair; that the parking spaces are level and ramps aren’t too steep; that handrails are a certain height; that door thresholds are not too high; that door knobs can be easily turned or doorbells are available if a door needs to be opened. The list goes on.

Karn, called the mandate from the federal government a “huge undertaking.”

One problem is the difficulty in finding suitable polling places, particularly in the rural areas of the county.

For the long term, Karn said, the county commissioners might have to redistrict or reduce the number of precincts.

“That’s not been done in I don’t know how long,” he said.