Senator Flanagan Calls For New Plan To Protect The Rights Of Voters With Disabilities

 

Senator John J. Flanagan (2nd Senate District), the Chairman of the Senate Elections Committee, today called for the rights of voters with disabilities to be protected. To ensure voting rights are protected, Senator Flanagan sent a letter to Judge Gary L. Sharpe of the United States District Court calling for a new and improved plan that will protect everyone's right to vote.

Senator Flanagan has sought to provide $15 million in state funding to address the needs of voters with disabilities throughout the state. The $15 million will provide counties the funding necessary to provide access this year without forcing the localities to cover the increased cost of needed changes.

Senator Flanagan's actions come after a recent plan from the New York State Board of Elections, which would limit the right of voters with disabilities, was submitted to the Department of Justice. In Suffolk County, the plan calls for two accessible voting machines in the Town of Brookhaven and one in each other town. In Nassau County, the plan calls for one machine in each Assembly district and one in Long Beach. Both county plans would include transportation assistance.

The plan that is being forwarded for voters in New York City calls for only one accessible machine in each borough with no accommodation made for travel. In total, 46 counties have now submitted plans that call for only one accessible machine or one single polling place throughout the entire county.

"This plan, which could be approved today, does little to protect the rights of voters with disabilities. It is simply unacceptable and clearly needs to be overhauled. The Board of Elections needs to work harder and provide more for those who wish to exercise their voting rights," said Senator Flanagan. "I urge the counties and the Board of Elections to rework this plan to offer real access to all voters."

To assist the counties with funding an improved plan, Senator Flanagan has proposed a $10 million allocation, which could be derived from interest earned on federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funding already secured.

This funding would alleviate the burden that is being placed on the counties and provide additional funding needed to equip more polling sites with at least one accessible machine.

"The counties should be protected from shouldering the burden of paying for this compliance and the state needs to step up to protect the rights of all voters. If we are ready to move ahead with a plan, we must provide equal access now and voters with disabilities have a right to travel the shortest distance to exercise their right to vote. The state should work to provide the counties with the needed funding to produce those results," stated Senator Flanagan.

Additionally, Senator Flanagan has sponsored legislation ensuring that matching funds required for federal HAVA compliance are paid entirely by the State and not from county allocations. Under HAVA, states must appropriate 5% in matching funds to secure federal funding needed to implement new voting guidelines.

During negotiations last year, the Senate and Assembly agreed the State would be responsible for New York's entire share of matching funds estimated to be $7.7 million. The goal of the agreement was to maximize local county funding needed to carry out the provisions of HAVA. Unfortunately, in the final passage of last year's State Budget, the funding was not allocated properly. During this year’s budget the Assembly would not agree to include this funding. This puts the agreement in jeopardy.

Senator Flanagan's legislation would keep the State's original promise by mandating that matching funds under HAVA would be paid entirely out of state appropriations.

In addition, Senator Flanagan also announced that he has secured $5 million for improved poll site accessibility. This money, which was approved during this year's on-time State Budget negotiations, will help pay for needed improvements at poll sites across New York State.

This funding, which Senator Flanagan originally had placed in the Senate's budget, is the result of an agreement between Senator Flanagan and the Assembly leadership. It will be dedicated to making necessary improvements to polling places throughout the state. This would include widening existing doorways, adding ramps, improving parking access and spaces and other features that will provide voters with disabilities access to the polls.

Under the agreement, the $5 million will be shared by local election boards and will be distributed according to the formula currently used to distribute the funding for purchasing new voting machines. This will allow the local boards to remain flexible in their utilization of state money and allow them to implement the modernization of their polling places.

"The buildings that are used as polling places must be fully accessible to ensure that everyone can exercise their right to vote. That is my position, that is the position of the Independent Living advocates and that is the position of the Justice Department. New voting machines are only an improvement if voters are able to enter the building to use them.

This important $5 million, which was agreed to during this year's budget negotiations, was originally part of a legislative package that Senator Flanagan successfully sponsored last year in the Senate.
That legislative proposal, which was not approved in the Assembly, had also included:

-eliminating local county waivers on poll sites to ensure that all polling sites would be compliant
with the American with Disabilities Act;

-requiring coordination with disabled advocacy groups to identify and fix noncompliant poll sites;

-directing the local boards to maximize the use of public and tax-exempt buildings;

-instructing localities to develop parking plans to assure parking spaces for people with disabilities
are in close proximity to polling places on election day;

-requiring that polling places be placed on public transportation routes whenever practicable to
minimize the parking demands on election day.

"New York State has an obligation to ensure that everyone who wants to vote has full access to the polls and that they can fully participate in elections. No barrier should remain in place when HAVA reforms are complete and we should provide the funding needed to make that a reality for as many voters as possible this year," concluded Senator Flanagan.

TEXT OF LETTER TO JUDGE GARY L. SHARPE

May 16, 2006

The Hon. Gary L. Sharpe
United States District Court
Northern District of New York
James T. Foley U. S. Courthouse
445 Broadway
Albany, New York 12207-2974

Dear Judge Sharpe:

I am writing to you in reference to US v. New York State Board of Elections, Civil Action No. 06-CV-0263(GLS). I know the Court has scheduled a conference with the parties today to discuss a remedial order sought by the U.S. Department of Justice concerning New York’s compliance with §§301 and 303(a) the Help America Vote Act. This letter is intended to address only the part of that order affecting voting systems and compliance with accessible voting machines for use in the 2006 election cycle.

I believe the plan submitted by the State Board of Elections (SBOE) is wholly insufficient to meet the needs of voters with disabilities in New York State. I believe the state can do better. By allowing the New York City Board of Elections to place accessible voting systems in only one polling place in each borough of the city, the SBOE and the USDOJ have encouraged a race to the bottom by the commissioners of the local Boards of Elections (LBOE’s). We can do better. Some LBOE’s offered plans which would have provided at least one accessible voting system in each town or in each Assembly district within the county. Since New York City’s plan has been preliminarily accepted, many of those LBOE’s have gone back and resubmitted amended plans offering only one polling place in an entire county for accessible voting. We can do better. We should not allow this to be an effort in reaching the lowest common denominator. We must do better.

The most common complaint from local commissioners is that they can not afford to purchase additional machines to satisfy the interim accessible voting system plan. Their HAVA funds are finite and they will be needed to acquire the fully HAVA-compliant, fully certified machines for 2007. I do not dispute that. But if money is what is necessary to insure that accessible voting machines are available for voters with disabilities on election this year -- then I offer money.

I will introduce today legislation to appropriate $10 million in new General Fund money to pay for the purchase of HAVA-compliant, accessible voting systems for the 2006 election cycle. This money will be available to LBOE’s under the same formula used to distribute the original HAVA funds already received from the federal government. Under the plan submitted to the Court the LBOE’s will currently be buying approximately 100 accessible voting systems for 2006. Even assuming a high end cost of $10,000 per machine, this will cost the LBOE’s approximately $1,000,000. My legislation will allow the LBOE’s to buy at least ten times that number. While not a perfect solution, it will take New York much closer to a proper remedy for our voters. We can do better.

I respectfully request the Court, in its deliberations over a potential remedial order, to give this proposal the utmost consideration. I have invited the Chair of the Assembly Elections Law Committee to join me in this legislation. We must do better.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely yours,

John J. Flanagan
Senator, 2nd District
Chair, Senate Elections Committee


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