Landmark Decision By Federal Appellate Court Vindicates The Rights Of Voters With Disabilities In New York City

New York, NY –New Yorkers who use wheelchairs or have visual impairments won a major civil rights victory today. A unanimous panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found that the Board of Elections in New York City discriminated against voters with disabilities by failing to make its poll sites accessible to voters with disabilities on Election Day.  This decision vindicates the rights of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who may previously have been excluded at the polls. The Court explained: “Here, the relevant benefit is the opportunity to fully participate in BOE’s voting program.  This includes the option to cast a private ballot on election days.  Indeed, to assume the benefit is anything less – such as merely the opportunity to vote at some time and in some way – would render meaningless the mandate that public entities may not “afford persons with disabilities services that are not equal to that afforded to others.” Among other things, the Court found that “By designating inaccessible poll sites and failing to assure their accessibility through temporary equipment, procedures, and policies on election days, BOE denies plaintiffs meaningful access to its voting program.” 

Read the court’s decision here.

The lawsuit was filed in 2010 on the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act by Plaintiffs United Spinal Association and Disabled in Action on behalf of all New Yorkers of voting age with mobility and vision disabilities.  Plaintiffs are represented by Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), a national non-profit legal center with offices in California and New York City that specializes in high impact litigation on behalf of persons with disabilities, the Law Offices of Kevin Mintzer, and the firm of Cuti Hecker Wang LLP. This decision marks the 5th major victory for Disability Rights Advocates in New York City since opening its East Coast office in 2010. 

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s order, which had found that the Board of Elections failed to remedy widespread barriers at its poll sites throughout the City on Election Day, including dangerous make-shift ramps, steps leading to poll sites, blocked paths of travel, and locked accessible entrances, among others.  One New York voter, Denise McQuade, had stopped voting at her designated poll site after encountering a dangerously steep ramp she described as being like a “ski slope.”

James Weisman, General Counsel of Plaintiff United Spinal Association, praised the Court of Appeals’ decision, stating, “I am very pleased that the Court has recognized how important it is for persons with disabilities to be able to exercise the fundamental right to vote. This decision will finally give New Yorkers with disabilities the opportunity to vote at their poll sites just like non-disabled voters.”

The Court of Appeals also affirmed the remedial plan ordered by the trial court. The plan requires the Board of Elections to designate a disability coordinator at each poll site on Election Day, to work with an outside accessibility consultant to survey the approximately 1,300 polling sites in New York City, and to remove access barriers where appropriate or identify alternate accessible locations to replace inaccessible poll sites.

Stuart Seaborn, DRA attorney, commented, “Voting at poll sites on Election Day is such a fundamental part of the civic experience for New Yorkers and we are thrilled that the Court of Appeals’ decision will open up this experience to voters with disabilities.”

Disability Rights Advocates is the non-profit legal center that recently prevailed at trial in the class-action lawsuit challenging New York City’s failure to plan for the needs of persons with disabilities in large scale disasters such as Hurricane Sandy. DRA also negotiated the settlement with New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission that will make 50% of yellow medallion cabs accessible by 2020. DRA has filed a suit against Beth Israel and its parent Continuum, alleging substandard medical treatment for disabled patients.  

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Shawna Parks 510-665-8644

Read the Opinion and Order of the District Court