Voters with disabilities sue Jacksonville over access
Nov. 12, 2001 - A national disability rights group and three disabled Floridians filed a class action lawsuit against Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and the Duval County Supervisor of Elections last week following the County's decision to purchase inaccessible voting equipment.
"Duval County has decided to purchase approximately 300 new voting machines. No more than four of the machines will be accessible to voters with disabilities and those machines, if purchased, will be located at election headquarters," says the Washington, DC-based American Association of Persons with Disabilities, who filed the suit along with the Florida residents. "There are nearly 300 polling places in the city of Jacksonville."
AAPD maintains that the county's purchase of inaccessible machines is a violation of federal law under the Americans with Disabilities Act and a violation of the Florida Constitution that guarantees each citizen the right to a "direct and secret vote."
"We've been struggling for years to get local election officials to give us adequate voting access. When it comes to accessible voting technology, we are told it is too expensive," said Jim Dickson, vice president of AAPD. "Duval County is in the process of purchasing new equipment. Why, more than ten years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, is Duval County discriminating against disabled voters by replacing old inaccessible voting equipment with new inaccessible voting equipment? And why is the Secretary of State allowing it?"
"This error in judgment by election officials in Duval County comes just one year after the Florida ballot debacle," said Lois Williams, senior counsel for litigation for the non-profit Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and co-counsel for the plaintiffs. "Their decision now will affect the rights of disabled voters for the next twenty years. As election officials in jurisdictions across the country consider the purchase of new voting equipment, they must also consider the rights of disabled voters."
In Florida, a county cannot purchase or use a voting machine that has not been certified by the Florida Department of State," says the non-profit Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, which is handling the suit.
Plantiffs say that currently the Florida Department of State authorizes the purchase of two types of voting systems - optical scan and touchscreen. Optical scan voting systems do not allow voters with visual or manual impairments to cast a direct and secret ballot. The touchscreen system is accessible to the visually impaired only when modified with voice capability. With other modifications, the touchscreen system can be made accessible for voters with manual impairments. Duval County is considering the purchase of no more than four touchscreen machines.
"Over half of all polling places in America are not fully accessible to people in wheelchairs; for the 10 million blind and low vision Americans, exercising the right to vote does not currently include casting an independent secret ballot," said Dickson. "Americans with disabilities should not have to sue every jurisdiction in the country just to exercise their right to vote."
A copy of the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court in Jacksonville is available to reporters and editors by contacting Jim Dickson at (202) 262-8240. The copy can be faxed or e-mailed. the AAPD website at http://www.aapd-dc.org.
Kay Schriner and Douglas Kruse have conducted a number of studies about voting access and persons with disabilities.
Kay Schriner, Ph.D., Department of Political Science
The Trace R&D Center was formed in 1971 to address the communication needs of people who are nonspeaking and have severe disabilities. Its director is Gregg Vanderheiden.
Trace Research and Development Center
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The Project on Disability Politics at the University of Arkansas looks at political participation of people with disabilities, voting rights laws affecting people with disabilities and disability in American campaigns and elections.