200,000 voters with disabilities still apprehensive as voting access remains uncertain
By Pedro Correa Henry
After dozens of complaints received from people with disabilities who have faced challenges voting ahead of today’s general elections, the rights group Protection and Advocacy of Voting Access (PAVA) will be present at various polling centers today to ensure some 200,000 citizens have access to their right to vote.
PAVA Interim Defender Gabriel Corchado Méndez said Monday at the State Elections Commission (SEC) Voting Operations Center that the agency could expose itself to serious federal lawsuits for breaches of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which seeks to promote, protect and count the votes of every person with a disability. Corchado Méndez said after doing oversight work in various municipalities that polling stations lacked appropriate parking spaces, accessible routes and proper voting booths for the disabled population.
“When we asked electoral officials who were working at the time where the vote-by-phone system was or where the ballots in braille were, they didn’t have it,” Corchado Méndez said.
He requested that SEC Chairman Francisco Rosado Colomer meet with PAVA officials “so this won’t happen again in the general elections.”
Meanwhile, PAVA Director Gabriel Esterich said “the population with disabilities and people who are blind deserve their right to vote.” He emphasized that members of these populations also encountered obstacles to voting during the Puerto Rico Democratic Party Primary and in both rounds of the local primary elections.
“We went to Isabela, Sabana Grande, Las Piedras, Moca, San Juan, Trujillo Alto and Aguada, and we did not see the vote-by-phone system. We are not going to give up and we are going to be available to people with disabilities; we are not going to allow it,” Esterich said. “The SEC had the chance to comply. We do not know if the telephone vote [system] is there. The system is being kept at the Permanent Registration Board; we need them at the polling centers.”
Esterich also called for electoral officials to open up the ballot containers at 9 a.m. sharp “to let every person with a disability vote like people who are enabled,” and so that the SEC is in compliance with the HAVA Act.
Corchado Méndez said meanwhile that voters with disabilities could submit their complaints by calling the hotline 787-945-2116, which will connect callers to the agency’s election monitoring team.
He encouraged citizens to leave a voice message if they are unable to get through.
“The rights of people with disabilities must be fulfilled and that is our mission,” he said.
SEC: HAVA Act requirements are being met
SEC Alternate Chairman Jessika Padilla Rivera told the Star that the agency was able to meet with PAVA twice a day before the elections to ensure the commission’s compliance with the HAVA Act, and that the SEC is “doing their best to attend to everyone.”
Regarding visually impaired and blind voters, Padilla Rivera said there will be some 440 braille ballots and 1,375 voting phones already installed at polling stations, as well as magnifiers to provide visual access. The SEC also has installed posters to identify “easy access polling centers” for the aforementioned populations, she said.
“If a voter can’t reach their polling station due to lack of physical access, electoral officials can activate the protocol to allow citizens to vote from their vehicles,” Padilla Rivera said. “We want to address every concern from this population. We have addressed and solved every issue that has come up through PAVA. We want to be as inclusive as we can with our voters.”
For the deaf community, meanwhile, the SEC has released a series of videos, all done in sign language and available at its official website, to inform deaf voters how they can vote with confidence in the general elections.
“We got started 54 days before the general elections, and we have done the best we can to safeguard citizens’ right to vote,” Padilla Rivera said while offering assurances that the SEC is putting HAVA Act requirements into effect.