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(SACRAMENTO) – Attorney General Bill Lockyer today filed lawsuits against Kern and Santa Cruz counties in state court which seek to compel the counties to comply with state and federal laws protecting the right of voters with disabilities to access polling places. The lawsuits stem from lengthy investigations which found nearly three out of every four Santa Cruz polling places surveyed had at least one barrier that could make disabled access especially difficult, hazardous or even impossible; and that more than nine out of 10 polling sites surveyed in Kern had an accessibility violation.
“The right to vote is the key to our democracy and it is my legal duty to protect this fundamental right for all Californians,” Lockyer said. “Extensive surveys conducted over the course of four separate elections revealed that barriers impeding or blocking disabled access to Santa Cruz and Kern county polls were pervasive and are unlikely to be fully corrected without strong action. I hope these lawsuits will help ensure that all California voters, including the disabled, are able to freely and equally exercise their right to vote.”
The two lawsuits allege that by failing to ensure that the polling sites they select satisfy applicable disabled access standards, local election authorities have violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state elections law. Specifically, the ADA requires that polling sites be readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities on election day. Under California law, local elections officials are authorized to select polling places of their own choosing, so long as they comply with standards issued by the Secretary of State which require that they be accessible to the disabled.
During the March and November statewide elections in 2002, the Attorney General’s Office, with the assistance of the Independent Living Centers, conducted informal surveys of randomly selected polling sites throughout California to assess compliance with accessibility laws. These informal surveys revealed that Kern and Santa Cruz counties both appeared to have an exceptionally large number of disability access violations at their polling sites.
After discussing the results of the 2002 surveys with county officials, the Attorney General monitored the March and November 2004 statewide elections in Kern and Santa Cruz counties and found significant violations.
In Santa Cruz, the Attorney General surveyed 98 of the 135 polling sites selected for the November 2004 election and found that 72 percent of the sites surveyed had at least one “high-priority barrier” that could make access especially difficult, hazardous, or even impossible for disabled voters. At least forty-one percent had two or more high-priority barriers and approximately 22 percent had three or more such barriers. In March of 2004, each site surveyed averaged more than four violations per polling site. Some of the violations found in Santa Cruz included polling sites with no wheelchair accessible paths of travel, steep ramps as much as four-times the legal slope limit, improperly sized disabled parking spaces, non-compliant door thresholds and door widths that were too narrow, and ramps without handrails or edge protections.
In Kern County, the Attorney General surveyed 83 of the county’s estimated 146 polling sites during the November 2004 election. The survey revealed at least one violation at 94 percent of all the sites surveyed, with an average of 5.5 violations per site. Among the violations discovered at that election were polling sites with no wheelchair accessible path of travel, improperly sized disabled parking spaces, non-compliant door thresholds, and ramps without handrails or curbs or that were too narrow.
The lawsuits were filed only after exhaustive discussions over the last three years failed to result in an agreement to insure improved disabled access and compliance with existing law for future elections. In fact, recent negotiations with Santa Cruz, led by Assemblyman John Laird, remained active through much of last week.
“Assemblyman Laird worked hard to mediate a solution on behalf of Santa Cruz and the disabled community, and I greatly appreciate his efforts.”
The Attorney General’s lawsuits were filed in the Superior Courts of Santa Cruz and Kern counties, respectively. The suits request that a court-enforceable order be issued requiring each county to select polling places that comply with existing law for future elections beginning with the June 2006 election.