Those expecting fireworks at last week’s City Commissioners’ meeting came away sorely disappointed. All the explosive elements were in place—the hearing room on Delaware Avenue was filled with reporters, and combustible Commission Chair Marge Tartaglione was holding court, smacking on gum and looking fashionable in a patterned scarf. However, the commissioners kept things short, maybe 15 minutes total to iron out a few details about this week’s special election for the late Robert Donatucci’s 185th state representative district seat. Questions from the audience were limited to the election, so no one had a chance to ask anything inflammatory. The crowd lingered around for a few minutes after the abrupt end, as if to ask, “Was that it?”
What did happen on Wednesday, however, during hearings before and after the meeting, provided a look at how the Commission actually functions outside all the controversy swirling around the office. The two commissioners present, Tartaglione and Joseph Duda, listened to testimony about the costs and benefits of moving polling places that create accessibility problems for disabled voters. The hearings offered a glimpse of the tension: On the one hand, the city must ensure that its disabled residents are able to get in and out of polling stations. On the other, moving polling places in cases where nobody has actually complained about accessibility has prompted complaints that the city is spending money unnecessarily and inconveniencing all voters.
Inspections of all the polling places by an independent assessor, which cost the city up to a half-million dollars, were mandated by a 2009 settlement after a lawsuit by disabled groups claimed a lack of access on Election Day. “You could either vote absentee or not vote,” says activist and lawyer for plaintiff Stephen Gold. “Out of 1,600 polling places, only four were accessible,” he says. “Now we’re up to something like six or seven hundred.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires an entrance without steps—ramped, or at street level, or with an elevator. When the assessors found places lacking, they brought them to the Commission’s attention. Last week’s hearing was among many held over the last few years to decide whether to make modifications to buildings or move to new, more accessible locations. On Wednesday alone, dozens of such cases were heard.
In one example, it was suggested to move a voting station from the Kingsessing Rec Center, which has seven steps at the entrance, to the library, which has an elevator. A community member argued against the move, saying that elevators break down too frequently to be of any use.
Tartaglione quickly rendered her decision. “What we’re gonna do, we’re gonna move it,” she rasped. “In the meantime, if you find something else you can come back. The feds won’t OK seven steps.”
To some, the moves would end up making it harder, not easier, for people to vote. Take the case of Parker Pub, which has hosted elections for the last 12 years in the 29th Division of Roxborough’s 21st Ward. The slope of the ramp into the pub is steeper than regulation and has a small lip at the top, so the Commission proposed moving the location to the nearby Salvation Army. The Salvo, however, two blocks down on Ridge Avenue, is a longer walk for many voters, which could very well be a bigger obstacle than navigating a lip at the top of a ramp. “It’s dangerous for elderly voters who walk,” argued attorney Richard W. Hoy, who is also a Democratic committee person for the division. “They have to cross two streets to get to the new spot.”
The bigger issue, however, is that no one has had problems accessing the Pub. “Nobody’s complained about it!“ Hoy points out later in an interview. “Why move it away when there’s no problem with the building?”
He promised letters from two disabled people supporting the Pub, plus from both ward leaders and the division’s two other committee people. “All the people that work at the board are gonna sign it,” he says. In the end, the Commission didn’t rule on the move, telling him to come back with the letters before they gave a decision.
Hoy’s frustration is in the feeling that the Department of Justice, which enforces ADA rules, is looking for problems where none exist. “It’s the federal government’s overbearing regulations intruding on people’s voting,” he complains. “They’re putting their fingers in places they don’t need to put fingers in.” In fact, last year the 29th Division went through the same process, and the Commission decided to let the polling place stay at the Pub. Now, they’re at it again.
Parker Pub is one of 1,687 polling places active in Philadelphia for a full election. In neighborhoods without an available public building to hold the voting booths, it’s already difficult in many cases to find willing hosts, businesses who give up a day of commerce, or homeowners who let a crowd of people tromp through their house every day, let alone find places offering perfect access. Nevertheless, any building that blocks entrance to someone in a wheelchair or with another disability is a problem. Ultimately, the city isn’t required to get all 1,687 stations up to code—the lawsuit settlement recognizes it might not be possible in all cases—but must at least make a good-faith effort to provide reasonable accommodations wherever possible.
Not everyone is satisfied that the effort is there. The rules are clear—there is a 39-page document on the ADA website with a checklist getting down to the last detail, like the slope of the ramp, to ensure exactly what facilities need to be in place so each polling place can be accessed by disabled voters. But sometimes solutions aren’t as simple as simply running down a checklist, and the rules don’t always correspond to real-world scenarios. For example, ADA compliance mandates that the doors to polling places be propped open, so that people who might not be able to open them under their own power can still enter the building without assistance. In many cases last fall, the election judges sitting in the exposed rooms all day refused to prop the doors because it was simply too cold. Now, for that and other violations, Gold is filing a motion to hold the Commission in contempt, in a hearing that will be held in April.
It wasn’t just the doors that were a problem, according to Gold. According to the memorandum of contempt, out of 197 polling places surveyed by the Department of Justice in the 2010 general election, 129 were found out of compliance, lacking the temporary modifications that had been agreed to. “They didn’t get the ramps up, didn’t put signs up for alternative entrances, didn’t move the main entrances so everyone gets equal access,” Gold says. “Doors propped open is minor in the grand scheme of things.”