By Carla Zanoni
MANHATTAN — When Washington Heights resident Edith Prentiss got in her motorized wheelchair and went to vote on Tuesday morning, she found a disturbing surprise: her polling site did not accommodate wheelchairs.
The desks where the new optical scanning voting machines were located were placed too close to one another, making it impossible for her to reach the machine.
"I would have had to walk between the voting desks to get to the table where I needed to vote," said Prentiss, who is unable to walk.
Despite the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, which requires that polling sites be accessible to the disabled, people with disabilities citywide have reported a host of problems blocking them from their civic duty.
Problems include a lack of ramps, wheelchair-accessible doorways locked with no way to communicate to people inside, and a lack of private voting space, disability advocates say.
Of particular concern to disabled voters was a dearth of accessible ballot marking devices (BMDs), which are supposed to be available to people of all needs, including those with sight, hearing or mobility impairments. The electronic machines function like the optical scanning voting machines, but have special tools for the blind, deaf and otherwise impaired.
Voters said many places didn't have the devices, or they were unavailable, or election workers had no idea how to make them work.
Prentiss, who is vice president for legislative affairs at the disability advocacy group, Disabled In Action of Metro NY, returned hours later to her polling site on Bennett Avenue in Washington Heights and found the room reorganized to allow her to vote.
"Most people just aren’t going to do that," she said. "I was told by numerous people that they were so overwhelmed with paper votes that they haven’t gotten around to the BMDs."
At one polling location in Central Harlem, neither the optical scanning nor ballot marking devices were functioning for voters.
Chris Noel, a Community Board 10 member and wheelchair user, said he was asked to fill out his paper ballot and leave it with workers there to tally at the end of the night. Fortunately for Noel, he is able to use a pen and paper to vote.
But voters who needed to use the "sip and puff" device designed for voters who have no use of their hands or feet, an Audio Tactical Interface (ATI) keypad for those who are blind or visually impaired or paddle buttons for people with very little hand dexterity had a difficult time voting.
"A lot more needed to be done to make sure those machines were tested before the primary," Noel said. "We need more training of poll workers and devices before election day."
Rina McCoy, a voting rights coordinator at the nonprofit Center for Independence of the Disabled (CIDNY), said she received reports from around the city that numerous polling sites were inadequately prepared for voters who have disabilities, either lacking equipment or training to help.
She and her team are creating a list of problems reported and a potential method for poll site coordinators to use when setting up voting areas. They plan to present their findings to the city's Board of Elections, she said. They urged disabled voters who experienced problems to report them to CIDNY or the League of Women Voters.
"At least one person should have a checklist of things they need to look out for so that people at poll sites can actually vote," she said. "If these things were one a checklist, maybe those problems would be caught at the beginning of the day."
McCoy said many of the benefits of having accessible voting locations is not relegated to people whom self-identity as "disabled."
"We have a large percentage of a growing aging population where ballot print size is really an issue," she said of the new paper ballots, which many complained had a too small font size. "And then there wouldn’t be a stigma in using the BMDs, because anyone can use it."
The Board of Elections did not respond immediately to requests for comment.