Political Activists Emerge
By Mary Bulkot, March 30, 2005
Weeks before the November elections, a New York State voter with disabilities received notification that his usual polling site had been changed. Although the voter tried to make the necessary transportation arrangements, it was already too late.
Another voter with disabilities, faced with a 1/2-inch thick plywood board being used as a makeshift ramp at a polling place, simply gave up.
The above stories were two of more than 90 collected by the New York State Independent Living Council (NYSILC) when it reported the voting barriers still faced by people with disabilities.
The report, released earlier this month, found that almost half of the complaints involved machine access. Other complaints focused on lack of access to polling places and ballots.
Although Tompkins and Schuyler counties didn't receive any voting discrimination complaints, "New York State still has a long way to go," said Larry Roberts, program director for the Finger Lakes Independence Center (FLIC), one of 36 Centers for Independent Living (CIL) across the state.
Although it's been more than two years since Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), New York State has still failed to reach consensus on how to implement voting access requirements, including disability access to machines at polling sites.
All states must comply with HAVA by Primary Day 2006. Until the ongoing legislative negotiations in Albany are settled, the state won't see a penny of the quarter of a billion dollars in federal funds earmarked for implementing HAVA.
The NYS Senate's election reform bills in the 2004 and 2005 legislative sessions ignored any significant changes to the election law essential to people with disabilities, NYSILC's report concluded.
The two exceptions are the mandatory requirements under HAVA to provide at least one fully accessible voting machine at each polling place and a waiver of voting time limits.
But politicians aren't the only ones who should be pushing for more progress in Albany.
It's important that people with disabilities "take part in the political process" and advocate for themselves on a legislative level, Roberts said. It's also critical for people with disabilities to play a role in the citizens' advisory committee that will help select the new voting machines.
"Even if we get the machines, there's still a lot of work to be done on basic access to the [polling] buildings and with the people responsible for running elections and training poll workers," Roberts said.
"A lot of these problems can be resolved with open, direct communication between people with disabilities and the Board of Elections," Roberts said. Tompkins County has been very responsive to FLIC's input in the past, he noted, and the organization hasn't received any recent complaints from its consumers.
For Roberts, election reform is one of the most important priorities on the advocacy agenda drawn up by NYSILC and the New York Association on Independent Living (NYAIL). Keeping an eye on Medicaid reform is another priority of his.
"The state needs to find ways to reduce Medicaid costs rather than cutting or limiting access to it. To do so, it needs to look at successful programs, like the Medicaid buy-in," Roberts said.
Started in 2003, the Medicaid buy-in program allows people with disabilities to retain their Medicaid eligibility when they join the job market.
"There's no comparable plan in the private system," Roberts noted. That means people with disabilities are often faced with the prospect of choosing between having a job or having health coverage. "People shouldn't be faced with this prospect," he said.
But prospects could deteriorate even further, Roberts and other advocates point out, if the governor and legislature don't restore $536,000 to the state budget and add an additional $5 million to the appropriation for CILs .
©Ithaca Times 2005
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