Voting Guide for the Handicapped
Persons with disabilities and their family members need to bring their concerns to the forefront of public awareness. Publicly organized groups that actively advocate for changes in legislation is on the way to accomplish this goal. The private act of voting is another. At present many voters with disabilities either do not vote at all or vote absentee ballot because they are unaware of their rights to accommodations that would enable them to vote in person. when a person with a disability votes at the local polls, the presence of that voter makes a political statement even more powerful than the individual vote that is cast. That voter's essential contribution to the overall welfare of our democratic society is validated. That voter's full participation in the political life of the community is affirmed. The Middlesex County Commission for Persons with Disabilities composed this voting guide to accomplish two goals. First, the Commission urges all persons with disabilities to vote. Second, the Commission hopes this guide will give the voter with a disability the necessary information to make an informed choice as to whether to participate more fully in the election process by voting in person or to vote by absentee ballot.
According to federal and state law, persons with disabilities are entitled to physical accessibility to polling facilities for elections. Physical accommodations include accessible parking with adequate space for person who use wheelchairs or walkers to maneuver between cars. These spaces should be on level ground, and the parking area should be a stable hard surface free of loose gravel and impediments. At least one accessible parking space should be provided, as close as possible to an accessible entrance to the polling place. Accessible spaces should be marked by an above ground sign that is mounted on posts and clearly visible to drivers. If the polling place has no existing designated handicapped parking spaces, then on regular space should be eliminated to provide a temporary access aisle between two adjacent spaces, by marking it with tape or blocking it with a barricade. This temporary accessible space also should be marked by a mounted sign and located near an accessible route to the polling location.
Accessible Routes & Entrances
Signs to direct the voter should be located along the accessible route to the poling place. If the accessible entrance is different from the entrance used by other voters, then signs should clearly direct the voter to the correct entrance and should be clearly visible to persons with limited eyesight. The signs should contain the universally recognized wheelchair symbol of accessibility.
An accessible route is one that is at least three feet wide with a stable, hard surface and no abrupt changes in level or slope more than 1/4 inch, with a rise no greater than one foot in twelve feet distance. Steps, curbs, stairs, soft sand, or loose gravel cannot be part of an accessible route. Either a temporary curb ramp should be provided or a curb ramp installed. The curb ramp should either have flared sides or temporary barriers on each side. Curb cuts should blend smoothly with the two connected levels and should not have a rise greater than one foot in twelve. The slope of a walkway also should not exceed this one in twelve ratio. Small changes in level can be corrected by installing a wedge or applying asphalt patch material. Temporary wood entrance ramps can be used for steps that have a total rise of no more than thirty inches.
The doorway clearance should not be narrower than thirty-two inches and no headroom clearance should be less than six feet none inches. Any threshold with abrupt changes of more that 1/4 inch should be modified. Round doorknobs should be replaced with level handle door hardware or supplemented by an add-on level handle. Automatic door closers should be adjusted for lighter pressures or disconnected.
Accessible Polling Facilities
Protruding objects inside the polling facility that could be hazardous to blind voters should be remounted so that their bottom edge is not more than twenty seven inches above the floor or surrounded by a protruding wall on either side. On a temporary basis, a polling place worker or volunteer can be posted to caution or guide blind voters.
If voting booths are not accessible, then either a separate private voting space at a table to fill out a paper ballot or a voting machine on a table at sitting height with a reach no more than fifty four inches high should be provided. Chairs should have high seats and arm rests. Tables usable by people in wheelchairs should have a clear knee space underneath at least twenty nine inches high and thirty inches wide. The table top should be not more than thirty four inches above the floor.
Available Aids & Supports to Voters with Disabilities
In addition to the physical accommodations summarized above, various aids and supports are available. For visually impaired voters, instructions must be printed in large fourteen point type and conspicuously displayed in a location low enough to be read by persons in wheelchairs. Dogs who assist people with disabilities should be admitted into all buildings. Deaf and hearing impaired voters must have access to voting and registration information through telecommunication devices for the deaf (TDD's). In Middlesex County, that number is 732-937-8364.
In addition, according to state and federal law, a person with a disability has the right to be assisted at the polls and accompanied into the voting booth, if necessary. This assistance may be provided by two election clerks, one from each party, or by a person chosen by that voter's employer, or by the agent of that employer, or officer or agent of the voter's union. Examples of assistance are reading, pulling the lever, writing, or any combination of the above. Assistance may not include commenting on the ballot choices or questioning the voter's decisions. The assistant must not reveal the voter's selections to anyone. If someone accompanies the person to the polling place, that person should know what assistance will be required. It is recommended that election officials be contacted before election day to let them know this assistance will be provided.
Rights of Voters with Mental Retardation
United States citizens eighteen years or older who are properly registered have the right to vote. Persons with mental retardation have the same constitutional rights, including the right to vote, as every other United States citizen. Every person with mental retardation is assumed to be as competent as every other citizen. Only where there has been a full due process hearing can anyone's rights be restricted on the basis of incompetency. Persons under guardianship can vote as can persons living in institutions. Individuals accompanying persons with mental retardation should be permitted to assist them.
Responsibilities of the Voter
Voting rights carry certain responsibilities. The Act of voting requires all voters to educate themselves concerning the issues and the candidates. It is the voter's responsibility to see that he or she is registered. Registration may be done by mail or in person. To register a voter must fill out a Voter Registration Application and have the signature witnessed by a registered voter. It is the voter's responsibility to make sure that his or her registration is renewed if he or she has not voted in any election with the past four years, or changed if the voter has moved more than 30 days prior to election. If there are any questions, it is advisable for the voter to check with the local board of elections well in advance of an election to make sure his or her voting registration is in order.
Voting by Absentee Ballot
The focus of the previous summary of accommodations, aids, and assistance available to voters with disabilities is to encourage such voters to exercise their citizenship directly by voting in person. If upon reviewing this summary it is the decision of the voter to vote by absentee ballot, then application for an absentee ballot should either be made in person or by mail received not less than seven days prior to the election by the Middlesex County Clerk, County Court House, P.O. Box 1110, New Brunswick, NJ 08903, 732-745-4364 (T.D.D. 732-937-8364). voters who are permanently and totally disabled shall after their initial request and without further action on their part be forwarded an absentee ballot application by the County Clerk for all future elections in which they are eligible to vote.
For person with a disability to receive an absentee ballot less than seven days before election, that person must fill out a Civilian Absentee Ballot Application that designates a family member or a voter registered in Middlesex County as a messenger. The application may be made in person by the messenger at the County Clerk's Office at 1 John F. Kennedy Square in New Brunswick to receive an absentee ballot. After the ballot is filled out by the voter it should be sent or delivered to the Middlesex County Board of Elections, 777 Jersey Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. The ballot must arrive no later than before the close of polls on the day of the election.
The Middlesex County Commission for Persons with Disabilities hopes the above information will encourage greater voter participation by persons with disabilities. Please assist us in this endeavor. If you as a voter or as a family member or person assisting a voter encounter or witness reasonable access and accommodations to voting denied to a person with a disability, please report any such incident to the Middlesex County Board of Elections 732-745-3471 (T.D.D. 732-937-8364) on that election day. If necessary, the matter can be referred to the judge presiding that day at the County Courthouse at 1 John F. Kennedy Square in New Brunswick.