By Mihir Zaveri
The Houston Chronicle
Harris County violated federal law by not making polling locations accessible to voters with disabilities in a special election held earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice alleged in a lawsuit filed Thursday.
The Justice Department said steep curb ramps, gaps in sidewalks and walkways and other "architectural barriers" would have prevented voters with disabilities from accessing most of the 32 polling places used in a May 7 special election for a state representative seat.
The special election was to fill out the term of Democrat Sylvester Turner, who vacated the District 139 seat in January to become mayor.
"Voters with disabilities assigned to inaccessible polling places are being harmed in that they are being denied the same opportunities as nondisabled voters to vote in person during Early Voting and on Election Day, and to participate equally in the electoral process," the suit stated.
The agency is asking a federal court to order Harris County to provide within 30 days a plan for remedying any violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Robert Soard with the Harris County Attorney's Office said the county would review the Justice Department's findings and likely file a response in the coming days. But Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart questions the merits of the allegations and says they are politically motivated.
The suit comes as the third-largest county in the U.S. is finalizing the designation of polling places for the fall election - locations are often reused - and Texas has become center stage in legal battles over voting rights and access.
On Wednesday, the state agreed to dilute its strict voter ID law and spend at least $2.5 million on voter outreach efforts after a federal appeals court ruled the law violated protections against minority discrimination at the ballot box.
Buck Wood, who has practiced election law for 40 years and served as elections division director for the Texas secretary of state's office from 1969 to 1972, said the allegations had implications beyond one special election. Moving polling places has been a longtime tactic to disenfranchise voters living in certain areas, especially minorities and the elderly, he said.
"It is something to be taken very seriously," Wood said, noting that violations of the ADA at polling locations is not uncommon. "Frankly, Texas jurisdictions, cities, counties and the state, have not really taken it very seriously."
Stanart, a Republican who is tasked with selecting polling places, said the Justice Department had not provided the county with details about the alleged violations. He said his office would attempt to provide the best experience for all voters.
Stanart said he sometimes has to consider picking a location that does not completely meet every federal requirement in order to make polling places reachable for even more voters.
Wood agreed that this is a difficult situation.
Sites used before
Stanart said that almost all of the locations used in the May 7 election had been used before.
He called the lawsuit politically motivated and said his office had not received any complaints from voters with disabilities who could not access the polls.
"What they are actually asking us to do is disenfranchise hundreds or even thousands of voters for no one," Stanart said.
Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, said "individuals with disabilities deserve the opportunity to vote at their local polling place."
"But many voters with disabilities in Harris County lack equal access to this basic and most fundamental right," Gupta said in a written statement Thursday. "Our lawsuit seeks to safeguard the right to vote and fulfill the ADA's promise of equal opportunity for people with disabilities."
A U.S. attorney who is representing the Justice Department in the lawsuit could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.
The Justice Department stressed that this is not the first time it has found problems with Harris County elections. In a special election held in January 2013, the department said, it found that 57 of 86 early-voting and Election Day polling locations were not accessible to voters with disabilities. The agency sent the county a letter in September 2014 about the locations and the alleged violations.
Stanart said that letter was "full of errors" and also did not take into account the practicalities of finding suitable polling locations.
In a June 20 letter to the Justice Department, the Harris County Attorney's office contended that many of the 2014 findings were "based on mistakes in fact by the DOJ due to the unfamiliarity which the investigators had with the properties inspected."
The county rejected an offer to enter into a settlement with the Justice Department over the allegations, but agreed to remedy some locations and move others, the letter states.
Stanart said the county's policy is always to choose polling locations that have an ADA certification. He said election workers will also bring out voting machines for those who cannot access the polls.
It's unclear what impact the alleged violations in the May 7 election would have had, if proved true.
Choose strongest case
Fewer than 2,000 people voted in the May 7 election, which former councilman Jarvis Johnson won with more than 83 percent of the vote.
Johnson said Thursday that the issue of ADA compliance at polling places did not come up before, during or after the election. He had not known of the lawsuit prior to being contacted by a reporter.
His opponent, Rickey Tezino, could not be reached for comment.
Wood said that the size of the election does not matter, as attorneys often choose elections where their case is the strongest to point out bigger problems in the system.
"At some point you've got to take a stand," Wood said.
He said he had not seen evidence that showed any elections had been influenced by voters with disabilities not being able to cast ballots
"It's hard to prove," Wood said. "You don't know how many people either didn't go to the polls because they knew they couldn't get in or they went to the poll and they told them they had to get a wheelchair and it didn't have access."
Lex Frieden, a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center who helped write the ADA and get it enacted in 1990 and has advocated for the disabled, said he was encouraged by the Justice Department's action and said he knows people with disabilities who have encountered barriers to voting.
"It must be quite disconcerting," Frieden said, "to get ready to make the effort to go to the polls and for one reason or another not be able to cast your vote."