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Polling Places Must Be Upgraded

July 22, 2008

As the date of the Nov. 4 presidential election draws closer, workers with Ohio's county elections boards have been measuring the slopes of parking lots and the weights of doors at polling locations.

Now they are being asked to build ramps and purchase mats, door knobs and other items to make the polls "temporarily" compliant with Ohio's version of the Americans with Disabilities Act on Election Day. While most locations already are compliant with federal law pertaining to handicapped accessible facilities, the Ohio Secretary of State's Office is mandating that all polling locations comply with state law that is more strict in its requirements.

And it's going to create further strain on already cash-strapped county governments. While counties have been told they will be reimbursed for these expenditures, there are questions about when the money will be received and whether the state funds available will be sufficient to cover the costs.

Article Photos

Photos by Joselyn King
Belmont County Board of Elections members Carl Lehman, left, Frankie Lee Carnes and Lee Horsfal listen to discussion at Monday’s board meeting.

Frankie Lee Carnes, chairwoman of the Belmont County Board of Elections, said she realizes those groups seeking such changes are doing so for noble purposes, but she acknowledged they are creating financial and time strains on county boards of elections.

Board members requested that the Belmont County commissioners be present at their meeting Monday so they could inform the commissioners of their pending need for expenditures. Commissioners Mark Thomas, Gordie Longshaw and Chuck Probst all were in attendance.

"We don't have budget wish lists," Carnes told the commissioners. "We have mandated lists."

She noted that elections board workers had to send away for a kit to measure polling locations for handicapped compliance, and this involved everything from measuring the slopes of ramps and parking lots to determining the weight of the doors and deciding whether handicapped accessible door knobs were needed.

County Director of Elections William Shubat said that of 50 polling locations in the county, only three were thought to be 100 percent compliant with state handicapped accessibility laws. He added that when signage requirements were added in - handicapped spaces must be marked outside the polling location - none of the locations complied with the law.

This is because none of the signs stated there was a "penalty of $250" for parking in the handicapped space, a requirement under Ohio ADA law.

Shubat found that at locations where there are gravel lots, mats will have to be laid down so that those in wheelchairs will be able to roll themselves into the building. According to information provided to the elections board, the cost of such portable mats can range from $649 to $2,149 each - depending on the type and size.

Actual ramps will have to be constructed at other polling sites, while some places have doors with knobs that will have to be retrofitted with ADA-approved grips. The grip for a lever door handle costs $12.75.

Shubat hopes to use county resources and prison help to offset many of the expenses.

All improvements done to any of locations on private property - because they utilize taxpayer money - must be "temporary" fixes that can be removed at the end of the day.

As such, the Belmont County Board of Elections will likely have to purchase its own parking lot striper at a cost of $89.95, as well temporary paint to etch out handicapped parking spots in places where they are needed. The cost of a package of 12 cans of temporary paint is $59.95.

Many questions still exist about what improvements will be needed at Belmont County's polling locations, and Shubat said he couldn't even estimate what the county's upfront costs will be.

There are 88 counties in Ohio, and 50 polling locations in the smaller Belmont County alone. According to Shubat, the state has just over $414,000 available through a Health and Human Services grant to reimburse counties. Individual voting locations also will have to be deemed 100 percent compliant to be eligible for the reimbursements.

Board of Elections members Monday first questioned when the work to make the locations ADA compliant was going to take place, as well as who was going to do it.

They next expressed concern about expensive, portable mats being left unattended at polling locations for extended periods of time, and about how none of the elections board employees could be spared in the days before an election to do such time-consuming tasks as installing portable ramps.

Carnes told Shubat she didn't want him or any other elections board employees doing the work during that time.

It was decided that the board would ask that county service workers do the work in the week before the Nov. 4 election, and that a temporary elections board employee - an ADA specialist - would be hired to go to each location to see that it was in compliance.

Shubat would then give the final inspection when he places the voting machines at the locations the weekend prior to the election.

"Do the people who own these voting locations know we're going to be making changes there?" board member Cynthia Fregiato asked. "They might wonder why there is a big mat in their parking lot, or a wheelchair ramp. Someone should contact them."

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