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Profs’ Films Spark DOJ Investigation, Settlement

Matthew Gromala, Reporter

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A U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Luzerne County polling places, prompted by the documentaries of two faculty members, led to a settlement with the county to improve access for people with disabilities.

Communications faculty members Melissa Sgroi and Dan Kimbrough produced two films, “VOTE” and “VOTE: The Disabled Democracy” in 2013 and 2014 that uncovered barriers to polling places for people with disabilities. Barriers included high door thresholds, stairway-only entries and a lack of handicapped parking.

“According to United States Attorney Bruce D. Brandler, in the November 3, 2015 general election, the United States Attorney’s Office along with an architect from the Department of Justice surveyed 52 of the county’s 180 polling place locations. The survey resulted in a finding that many of the county’s polling places contain barriers to access for persons with disabilities,” said a press release by the United States Attorney’s Office.

These were exactly the things Sgroi and Kimbrough observed firsthand.

“Voting is one of our most basic rights, and we found that because of [the barriers], there were people who weren’t able to exercise their rights,” said Kimbrough.

While the county has now entered into a binding plan to address these accessibility issues, the federal government wanted the issues addressed by end of December 2016. The county viewed this as unreasonable, particularly because of preparations for the 2016 Presidential Election.

Mandated changes go beyond even the scope of issues raised in the documentaries.

The professors’ investigation found that the county spent more than $60,000 for accessibility equipment prior to the documentaries. County staffers found the equipment in a warehouse and took the professors on a tour.

A recent article in The Citizens’ Voice quoted Election Bureau solicitor Michael Butera saying he had believed the county was in full compliance after addressing the issues brought up by the documentaries, at least until the Department of Justice contacted him.

The DOJ is following the most recent updates to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is a piece of federal legislation that protects the rights of individuals with disabilities.

Thanks to an appeal to the United States Attorney’s Office, the county now has until the end of 2017 to make all of the necessary changes to polling places or risk penalties.

Sgroi said she was very happy to hear about the settlement.

“To me, it’s extraordinary that finally polling places in Luzerne County will be much more accessible to people with disabilities. People may have been disenfranchised, The footage shows the barriers.”

Kimbrough was also happy to hear the news, but also raised an interesting question.

“Why did it take so long, though? It’s a shame this ever had to be an issue in the first place, but at the same time it is great news that actions are being taken.”

It is important to note that while access to polling places was difficult or even non-existent, voters have always had the option of applying for absentee ballots. However, Sgroi noted that if voting is a public, social activity for some, it must be for all.

Luzerne County may have to relocate inaccessible polling places to new, accessible facilities, work with building owners and occupants to make the necessary changes to existing polling places, or adopt temporary measures every Election Day. These temporary measures may include doorbells, traffic cones, signs and temporary ramps.

Sgroi also wanted to stress that county election officials were fully supportive and embraced their investigation. Many, if not most, people were simply unaware of barriers because they are not apparent in a society that assumes everyone is without functional limitations, she said.

The press release from the United States Attorney’s Office also quoted U.S. Attorney Bruce Bandler on the County’s willingness to address and make the necessary changes.

““We applaud Luzerne County’s commitment to ensure that all persons with disabilities have equal opportunities to vote in person at their polling places alongside their neighbors,” said Bandler.

At the end of the year, the federal government will assess whether the county made the necessary changes or at least a good faith effort to complete them.

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Profs’ Films Spark DOJ Investigation, Settlement