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Federal review finds Canyon, Ada polling sites not compliant with disabilities law

The DOJ survey, the first of its kind in Idaho, identified a variety of problems and barriers to full access, including ramp slopes deemed too steep, insufficient signage for disabled parking, building doors and doorways that failed to meet width standards and disabled parking spaces that fell short of standards set forth in the law. (File Photo)

A U.S. Department of Justice investigation has found that only four of 25 Canyon County polling locations surveyed during the Republican primary earlier this year qualified as fully accessible to voters with physical and visual disabilities.

A similar survey of 27 polling sites in Ada County during the March primary showed that not a single one fully complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 1990 civil rights law that prohibits discrimination of those with disabilities in all aspects of public life.

The DOJ survey, the first of its kind in Idaho, identified a variety of problems and barriers to full access, including ramp slopes deemed too steep, insufficient signage for disabled parking, building doors and doorways that failed to meet width standards and disabled parking spaces that fell short of standards set forth in the law. In an Aug. 17 letter to the county, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica R. Gunder said a majority of the issues identified in the survey could be remedied before Election Day on Nov. 8 with temporary measures.

Federal surveyors also concluded that one of the 25 polling locations surveyed in Canyon County could not be made accessible by Nov. 8, even with temporary fixes. In the letter, Gunder said unless the county intends to make permanent modifications to that location, the polling place must be moved to an accessible site. Overall, Canyon County has 60 separate polling sites.

“While there were a number of polling place locations selected by the county and used for Election Day that were not physically accessible to persons with disabilities, many but not all can be made temporarily accessible by Election Day,” Gunder wrote in a letter obtained by the Idaho Press-Tribune through a public records request.

Along with the Aug. 17 letter from Gunder, U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson proposed a five-year settlement agreement that spells out compliance problems and recommendations for temporary fixes for the upcoming presidential election. The proposed agreement also calls for periodic staff training and monitoring. Gunder also warned that if the parties are unable to reach a resolution, the DOJ may sue the county to enforce the law.

Canyon County Clerk Chris Yamamato, who oversees county elections, said the county has neither the time nor resources to make the recommended changes before the general election. He said the county also doesn’t intend to sign the settlement agreement.

“We physically did not have the time,” Yamamoto told the Press-Tribune Friday.

As a workaround, Yamamato said the county is giving renewed emphasis to its curbside program, tailored specifically to serve disabled voters. The county is also buying signs and setting up parking cones to address handicapped van parking problems identified by federal officials. In total, the county is spending $5,000 on these measures, he said.

THE INVESTIGATION:

The investigation marked the first time Idaho counties have had their polling locations reviewed by the Department of Justice for compliance under the ADA, Gunder said.

On March 8, federal officials fanned out across the two counties, surveying 25 of Canyon County’s 54 primary polling sites and 27 of Ada County’s 138 primary polling locations. Each surveyor was armed with department’s ADA checklist, which was published in 2010 and helps assess accessibility of polling places for those with physical and visual disabilities. Surveyors did not analyze ever architectural feature at a polling location, just those elements required for the county to conduct voting on that day.

Each survey begins with an assessment of the parking lot and requirements such as wide-parking spaces for vans, signage, route to the polling site. Surveyors also inspect the slope and width of ramps and even whether tables inside are appropriately sized for voters using wheelchairs.

In Canyon County, the most frequent and recurring issue was a lack of van-accessible parking. None of the polling places surveyed contained van-accessible signage. The review found that some ramps were too steep, doorway widths too narrow and some door-handles were deemed difficult to open.

COUNTY’S RESPONSE

Yamamoto, in a Sept. 2 reply letter to Gunder, said that while he was concerned about the findings, his office is committed to “operating a voting program that, when viewed in its entirety, is readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.” He also told Gunder that his office has only received one complaint about accessibility in the last five years.

But he wrote, “that commitment is necessarily informed by the availability of time and other resources.”

Implementing all of the DOJ temporary structural improvements within a two-month time frame, by the election, would be “problematic for our office” considering budgeting, Yamamoto wrote. He agreed to some, but not all of the temporary improvements outlined by the U.S. Attorney’s office.

The county has decided to bolster its promotion and preparations for curbside voting, intended to help disabled voters who prefer to fill out ballots from their vehicle. Yamamoto said signs for the service will be posted in handicapped parking spaces. The signs will have a telephone number to call and a doorbell to alert poll workers, who will then hand-deliver ballots to parked voters.

COUNTY FINDS MAKING FIXES DIFFICULT

After receiving the DOJ findings letter, county facilities manager Paul Navarro said he spent three days visiting each of the county’s 60 general election polling locations. He said some of the structural changes cited in the survey would not be so easy to fix, even temporarily. The county is also dealing with complexities of making temporary fixes to locations that in some cases are privately owned.

For example, Navarro said one of the most challenging tasks was to a concrete ramp at a local church that would have to be ripped out and replaced, at a cost of thousands of dollars.

“There’s no universal ramp we can just take out of a box and say, ‘Here you go,’” Navarro said. “It’s not just a simple fix. These are very complicated fixes, and each building is unique.”

At a Sept. 19 meeting with commissioners, Navarro shared some of the hurdles of getting into compliance. Commissioner Tom Dale proposed hiring a consultant to help Navarro bring the polling sites into compliance, but a formal motion to do so was never proposed.

ADA COUNTY TAKES DIFFERENT APPROACH

Since being notified of its deficiencies, Ada County has taken a different approach to getting into compliance. Ada County officials hired an independent Boise-based company that specializes in making recommendations on how to make buildings accessible for people with disabilities, said Phil McGrane, chief deputy in the Ada County Clerk’s Office.

The company, Living Independence Network Corp., charged a $35 per hour consultant fee then an additional $15 for travel to each polling site, according to McGrane. Each polling site required about two hours of the consultant’s time.

In its survey, the DOJ found many of the same issues in Ada County that plague Canyon County, according to Gunder.

McGrane said the county is making sure each of the 140 polling locations will be in compliance with the ADA by Nov. 8. As part of that plan, he said the county has ordered wider tables to accommodate wheelchair-bound voters, installed temporary ramps, among other fixes. McGrane also said two polling places have been relocated.

FINDING AN ALTERNATIVE IN CANYON COUNTY

In Canyon County, efforts to relocate the polling place deemed unacceptable by federal surveyors, the Southside Methodist Church in Nampa, has not been so simple, Yamamoto said.

Yamamoto said county officials have been working for five months to find an alternative, but to date have been stymied, in part he said due to limited viable options.

Letters exchanged between county and federal officials indicate both sides remain committed to finding a reasonable solution without having to litigate in federal court. But for now, Yamamoto said he is unwilling to sign a settlement agreement that would bind the county to five years of monitoring and other conditions.

“The contract I saw is a five-year contract that they can tell, mandate, everything we do with voting locations through the DOJ, and I have no intention of signing that,” Yamamoto said.

Yamamoto said he is worried that with new requirements, the county may either lose some of its polling locations or face costly upgrade costs.

“I have no idea how expensive that could be,” he said. “We own none of these locations.”

On Sept. 13, Gunder responded to Yamamoto, emphasizing again the belief that the locations can be brought into compliance at little or no expense.

“We are happy to work with Canyon County to ensure the physical accessibility of polling places for persons with mobility disabilities and vision disabilities, and can discuss any proposed modifications you may have to the terms of the settlement agreement,” Gunder wrote.

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