The Buffalo News
Another voice / Voting rights
By BRAD WILLIAMS
Nearly 10 percent of the voters in November's elections were people with disabilities, according to polls commissioned by the New York State Independent Living Council.
These findings, from polls conducted by the Siena Research Institute and Zogby International, suggest that the disability vote has the potential to be a decisive factor in the future, especially as access is ensured at polling sites under federal and state laws.
Long standing barriers to voting sites have discouraged individuals with disabilities from voting. To address this, the federal government approved the Help America Vote Act following the 2000 presidential election.
New York has struggled to implement HAVA, earning the distinction of being sued in federal court by the U.S. Department of Justice for its lack of compliance. The state Legislature's determination to retain the "full face" ballot, which shows all contests on one screen, has limited options for accessible voting machines. We will continue to call for the elimination of the "full face" ballot.
For Primary and Election Day 2006, the state did comply with a plan to provide at least one ballot-marking device at an accessible polling site in each county. Results from both polls appear to show, however, that voting access changes are beginning to have a positive impact.
While the responses of voters with disabilities generally paralleled the overall electorate in statewide races, support for incoming New York State Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer was even higher among people with disabilities. In the Siena poll, 82 percent of voters with disabilities expressed a "favorable" opinion of Spitzer. As the former state attorney general, Spitzer sued three upstate counties to ensure polling place access back in 2000. The new governor will be in a position to end the state's dysfunctional election reform tendencies and promote inclusive participation and voting rights for all citizens.
This will be crucial to accommodate the significant demographic shifts New York will soon face beginning in 2015, with the aging of the "baby boomer" population. New York will experience its largest senior and disability population ever, along with its greatest cultural diversity by 2025. The latter trend will result in a major increase in the number of non-English speaking citizens in the state.
Accessibility remains an obstacle in the way of true voting reform for people with disabilities, seniors and non-English speaking citizens.
At a celebration for the Americans with Disabilities Act last summer, Spitzer and his running mate, David Paterson, both identified accessibility and HAVA implementation as a top priority for New Yorkers with disabilities.
Spitzer must push the Legislature to institute election reform and provide all citizens with the most basic American right - a free and independent vote.
Brad Williams is executive director of the New York State Independent Living Council.
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