For Advocate of Voters With Disabilities, Polls Present Obstacles

Arlene Schulman | Tuesday, November 3, 2020


Edith Prentiss wheeled across the ramp into her polling site in Washington Heights on Election Day and sighed.

She pointed to the incline between the ramp and doorway of the Moriah Senior Center in Washington Heights.

“This ramp,” the longtime advocate said, “is state of the art but there’s not sufficient coverage.”

A voter stumbled over the ramp as he entered.

Prentiss called poll workers over to inspect what might seem like a minor inconvenience but can hinder or prevent people with disabilities from entering polling sites.

The Americans with Disabilities Act 2016 checklist for accessible polling places includes accommodations for parking and stresses the importance of ramps, smooth surfaces, wide entryways, easy-to-open doors and available lifts and elevators.

Once voters with disabilities make it inside, the voting technology is required to include a Ballot Marking Device that can be utilized by touch screen, a braille keypad, a rocker paddle that allows a voter to press yes or no with hands or feet, or a sip and puff device that uses air pressure for those who have limited or no motor ability.  The whole process takes two machines. A vote is marked on the ballot by one machine and then the completed ballot must be scanned by another to record the vote.

Edith Prentiss Examines Ramp at the Moriah Senior Center in Washington Heights.  Photo by Arlene Shulman 

Prentiss, 68, who has used a wheelchair for 25 years, and other New Yorkers represent 38.3 million people in the U.S. with disabilities who are eligible to vote, representing 16.3% of the population, according to a Sept. 24 Rutgers University study. According the U.S. Census Bureau, 930,100 people with disabilities were living in New York City in 2017, which represents 11 percent of the total local population.  

Prentiss, former president and current transportation chair of the 504 Democratic Club and former president of Disabled in Action of Metropolitan New York City, predicts that many people with disabilities and seniors are voting with absentee ballots or voted early.

Prentiss has voted at the Moriah Senior Center for the last 40 years. There was no line when she arrived there at 7 am, unlike early voting lines that were filled with voters with canes, walkers and wheelchairs at the Bronx County Courthouse.

Prentiss attempted to use the Ballot Marking Device but the battery appeared to be dead.

“This is what we’re doing,” she instructed poll workers. “We are going to call the technician, and then I will come back later.”

“This,” she added, “is why I arrive early.”

She passed her telephone number to a poll worker, a neighbor who lives in her apartment building two blocks away, and told him to call her when it was fixed.

“I’ll be returning at 4 pm,” she warned.

Prentiss declined to vote early citing long lines at uptown polling sites that circled the block and a compromised immune system. Sheila Mack, a 57-year-old retiree who uses a cane, voted early at Lincoln Center because of a bad hip. She showed a poll worker her New York Access-A-Ride card, which allows her to use New York’s paratransit systems for people with disabilities, and she was ushered to the front of the line.

Ana Heywood, 71, a retired teacher and breast cancer survivor who is Puerto Rican, also moved to the front of the line when voting early in the Bronx.

“How good it feels to have a voice,” she said. “Our ancestors got beat up, got bitten by dogs, and terrorized the right to vote.”

After 40 minutes, a poll worker found Prentiss outside determining how the ramp should be re-installed. A few minutes later, the ramp was adjusted with no gap between the ramp and entranceway.

The Ballot Market Device, as it turned out, only required a restart by turning the machine on and off.

Prentiss wheeled back in to vote. But one of two scanners was down for the count, a technician on the way. 

“This current president,” she said, “has been doing his best to deconstruct law, policies and programs that are very important to all of us, except the billionaires. This has impacted people with disabilities and seniors.”

She voted for Joe Biden.

With additional reporting from Tricia Crimmins, Grace Benninghoff, Anna Grazulis and Andrew Little.


This story is the work of students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Other news organizations are welcome to publish this story as long as they adhere to these guidelines.