Mary grabbed the banister with both hands ... as though it were the rope to a lifeboat ... gingerly making her way down the steep steps that lead to the cafeteria of Immaculate Conception School in Bloomfield, her polling station during the May 16 primary. At 82, this avid voter confessed that she wasn't sure if she could again risk tumbling down the stairs.
"Probably this is the last time I'll come to vote," said Mary (who declined to give her last name). "I have bad knees." In fact, she said, a lot of her elderly neighbors in Bloomfield wouldn't venture out to vote for fear of a fall.
Despite substantial improvement in the past year, the path to the polls can still be an obstacle course for many elderly and disabled voters across Allegheny County. Both groups are covered under the federal and state Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act, passed in the 1980s to make all federal polling places accessible to all voters.
"The law is 20 years old," says Paul O'Hanlon, a Downtown attorney for Disability Law Project, a statewide group that defends the rights of the disabled. "If we don't make it happen, we might never get accessible polling places."
Daunting steps, raised curbs, narrow doorways ... such barriers to voting exist in at least 38 polling sites, roughly 3 percent of all precincts in the county, according to the county's Elections Division. Most of the inaccessible sites are in older communities that have seen few new buildings since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1992. For instance, in Wilkinsburg, three of the borough's 15 sites are still flagged inaccessible; in Homestead, two of its six remain at issue.
Last month, county officials made the eleventh-hour sprint to acquire new, touch-screen voting machines for use on May 16, in order to meet the deadline for complying with the federal Help America Vote Act. HAVA was passed in 2002 after the chaos over hanging chads and other disputed voting records stymied an accurate vote count in Florida during the 2000 presidential election. But the law also contains provisions to make voting methods universally accessible to those with movement difficulties, sight problems or other disabilities.
Says Joan Stein, a Forest Hills Borough disability rights advocate who runs a consulting firm on ADA compliance: "An accessible voting machine isn't going to do any good if you're stuck on the sidewalk."
In June 2005, according to an official assessment, the county had far more inaccessible polling sites ... 258, nearly one in every four sites. Although the county has reduced that number to the current 38, some disabled voters say certain polls seem to be accessible only in the eyes of the able-bodied.
"Accessibility means different things to different people," says Anne Nalepa, a life-skills specialist at Three Rivers Center for Independent Living, a human-services agency in Wilkinsburg.
In fact, it may mean different things to the federal government than it does to the states. Many states, including Pennsylvania, have created their own standards instead of the more precise and comprehensive guidelines put out by the Department of Justice, which enforces the ADA. The result: When local officials designate a polling place accessible, it may still not be ADA-compliant.
For instance, to test whether the door of a polling place can be opened by disabled or elderly voters, the state checklist asks if "the door to the polling place building and all others on the route to the polling place [can] be easily opened by an elector using a wheelchair, braces or crutches or by a person who is frail." That's less precise than the federal ADA Checklist for Polling Places, which specifies that "a door hardware (e.g., lever, pull, panic bar) [be] usable with one hand without tight grasping, pinching, or twisting of the wrist."
Prior to previous voting trips, Nalepa, who uses a wheelchair, did her homework by calling ahead. Still, often there were unpleasant surprises. "You don't know until you're actually there," she says. "It's the luck of the draw whether you can get in or not."
This needn't be the case, says Stein, if the state would follow federal guidelines.
"We know there are issues to be resolved," says Cathy Ennis, spokeswoman for Pennsylvania's Department of State, which oversees elections. Under HAVA, Pennsylvania has received close to $1.2 million from the federal government to make polling-place accommodations, and Allegheny County had $26,623 in state funding earmarked for such purposes. State elections officials plan to make all counties achieve full compliance before the November elections, Ennis says.
An election-reform task force, chaired by Secretary of State Pedro Cortez, submitted its final report to Gov. Ed Rendell on May 12. The task force recommends that the state Election Code be amended to allow "curbside voting," a stop-gap measure long championed by disability-rights advocates. With curbside voting, voters can use paper ballots or other means outside their assigned polling place. Voters assigned to inaccessible sites can also apply for an alternative ballot ... but must do so at least one week before Election Day. So the onus is still on these voters to research their polling place ahead of time. Casting an alternative ballot is like voting as an absentee ... not quite the equal voting experience those with disabilities desire, and to which they are entitled by law.
Joycelyn Banks, a rehabilitation specialist at United Cerebral Palsy of Pittsburgh, says she encourages disabled voters to show up and cast their ballots. But she understands why many choose to stay home or remain invisible, casting absentee ballots and wondering whether their votes count.
Whenever Banks arrives at the Versailles Borough Hall to vote, she barely squeezes through the narrow entrance in her compact wheelchair. "My job is to teach these people to be as involved in the community as possible," she says. "People with disabilities have the right to be involved in the political process. The barriers shouldn't be there, but they are there."