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Access Undeniable at Most County Polling Places

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Lost in concerns about voting-machine performance this past Election Day was news about the welcome reduction in polling-place obstacles for the disabled -- and the problems that remain.

"In 2004, I was probably on the phone all day -- trying to problem-solve with people trying to vote," says Paul W. O'Hanlon, lawyer with the Disabilities Law Project Downtown. "But I didn't get any calls this election. I'm really happy that they have such a serious reduction in the number of inaccessible polling places."

But, he adds, "They don't consider everyone's inaccessibility issues."

One such issue took place outside the gym of the Brashear Association in Arlington, at the top of a long hill at one of the highest points in the city. "Do you have any authority?" asked an exasperated Ralph Lutz, as he leaned on his cane on Election Day. "Will somebody put an elevator in this thing?"

In years past, said Lutz, voters in his district had cast their ballots in a ground-level room. On this Election Day, the voting machines were now on the floor of the gym, one level below. That was likely due to the addition of a voting district that had previously used St. Josaphat in the 2500 block of Mission Street in the South Side. It was one of 70 the county had switched since July 2005 -- 26 since May's primary election alone, reported Allegheny County spokesperson Kevin Evanto.

But access to this polling site could be had only by a long ramp that ran the entire length of the gym, then doubled back across the gym's length again before reaching the basketball court.

"That's a mouse trap," Lutz said.

Such challenges can be easy for others to miss, says O'Hanlon: "A long ramp would not be an issue for me in a power wheelchair, but for some, walking that long ramp sounds like a nightmare."

"A lot of the people left when they saw they had to walk down there," said Mary Lavelle, Arlington Democratic Committee member. "There were a couple of young guys who offered to take them down in wheelchairs."

There were also problems getting to the polling place itself.

"The neighbors down there, they're not happy," about the change in venue, said Mary Dembski, majority inspector, who was working the former St. Josaphat district polls.

"A lot of their seniors didn't come up," said Minority Clerk Irene Lakomy.

"Quite a few," said Dembski. "Either they didn't have rides or it was too uphill."

The elimination of inaccessible sites, as required by the 2002 federal Help America Vote Act, was almost entirely accomplished by Allegheny County, which reduced inaccessible sites from 243 last year to seven by Election Day. The county had only one complaint about accessibility -- a new ramp that didn't fit right, Evanto said. The Commonwealth's Department of State reported no complaints at all.

According to Joan W. Stein, head of Downtown consulting firm Accessibility Development Associates, Pennsylvania's checklist for polling-place accessibility "was unfortunately a more limited version" than the federal HAVA law requires. (State Department Spokesperson Cathy Ennis in Harrisburg said she was not aware of such a situation.)

All polling sites had to be accessible by Jan. 2, 2006, according to HAVA, and the Justice Department was supposed to enforce that requirement. "And they haven't," Stein says. "The vulnerability that the state has put on the counties is that anyone can file an ADA lawsuit against any of the polling places."

Accessibility may continue to be an issue in the county, despite vast improvements. In the middle of another steep hill on Mt. Washington, Grace Episcopal Church on West Sycamore Street served as the new polling location for two other churches now deemed inaccessible. Grace already had a ramp from the street to the door, but poll workers and voting activists on site for Election Day weren't sure relocated voters even knew to come here.

While Constable Phyllis Haduch noticed "more people with walkers" than previously, poll-watcher Joy Sabl of the League of Young Voters said she had to send her husband to one of the old polling places to post a sign alerting voters to the new location.

The county took care of all signs, Evanto said. But this district's Judge of Elections, Patricia Belfiglio, complained that she had been told to arrange for a sign herself. "We knew our people," she said, "and knew they would be confused by the change in polling place."

Of course, Belfiglio added, "at what point do you quit posting?"

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