Disabled man claims poll site is inaccessible

Suit filed after problem voting in city primary

October 12, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Robert Reuter just wanted to cast his vote on primary day.

But unlike most of his fellow citizens, Reuter, who uses a wheelchair, had to drag himself by the arms up five long steps to vote at a Masonic hall Sept. 10 - then drag himself back down.

The 54-year-old Northeast Baltimore resident filed suit in federal court yesterday, hoping to win the right to a more accessible place to vote in the Nov. 5 general election - and to draw attention to problems other disabled voters might have at the polls.

"Voting is not a back-door privilege," Reuter said. "I haven't missed voting in any election since I was old enough to vote."

It might sound easy enough for Reuter to be assigned to a new polling place without resorting to court.

But Barbara E. Jackson, city election administrator, said there is only one other accessible voting site that carries the ballot for Reuter's councilmanic, legislative and congressional districts - and that's a place Reuter is not sure he can get into, either.

Jackson has offered Reuter an absentee ballot, but Reuter doesn't want one: "They don't count those votes until later," he said.

Reuter has made a name for himself lobbying to improve accommodations for the disabled.

The disabled veteran's complaints to the state's Commission on Human Relations have led to the installation of a portable wheelchair lift on the historic warship Constellation and a ramp at the District Court building in East Baltimore.

Reuter, an engineer, said he wasn't seeking a fight when he set out to vote. "I don't go out of my way looking for this stuff. It just jumps in my face," he said.

The Maryland Disability Law Center has taken Reuter's case - filing suit under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act - in the hopes of improving access to Baltimore's polling places.

"There's not a system that was working for him," said Lauren Young, the center's legal director. "I don't believe there's a system there that's working right for other people."

Inadequate access to polling places is a national problem.

A report last year by the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, found that eight of 10 polling places posed barriers to disabled voters, although many of them allowed people who couldn't get inside to complete ballots outside.

Still, the difficulty of getting to the polls appears to discourage many disabled people from voting.

A national study after the 1998 elections found that those voters were 20 percent less likely to cast ballots than able-bodied voters.

Most of Baltimore's 257 polling places are schools and are accessible, Jackson said.

Twelve are churches, and disabled voters may not be able to enter all of them with ease. Another 11 sites are known to be inaccessible, Jackson said.

Occasionally, those operating an accessible site don't open the required entrances, Jackson acknowledged. "We depend upon the places that say they are accessible to have the entrance open," she said.

Reuter's effort to vote in the primary began Aug. 5, when he was being reassigned from Mount Olive Lutheran Church on Belair Road, his polling place of 29 years.

While Reuter never had a problem getting into the church, he knew that his new polling place, Catholic High School on Edison Highway, had barriers to cross.

Reuter called the Board of Elections and asked to be transferred. Elections officials offered him a choice: Harford Heights Elementary School on Broadway or a Masonic hall on Gorsuch Avenue.

Since the school was farther from his house and Reuter had had trouble entering it before, Reuter chose the hall.

But driving by to check the hall afterward, Reuter noticed a big problem - a step too high for his wheelchair to climb.

He says he called the board back for another transfer, but no one returned his call. Jackson says she did talk to Reuter, and told him it was too late to change again.

"I said, `The only other thing I can tell you to do is to come in and get an absentee ballot,'" she said. "He refused."

So on Election Day, Reuter dragged himself over the step - only to find more inside the building between him and the voting booth.

It took about 20 minutes to drag himself up, and the same amount of time to get back down, he said.

Jackson says she told Reuter about a back door off an alley that would have accommodated his wheelchair. Reuter says he learned about that door only after he'd reached the voting booth.

In any case, he said, the alley was full of broken glass - and too hazardous to traverse in a wheelchair.

A man who answered the phone at the Masonic hall yesterday would not comment on Reuter's case.

Jackson said she still considers the Masonic hall an accessible polling place.

She could not explain why it had been added to a list of inaccessible sites on the Board of Elections Web page.

Disabled voters have until Tuesday to request a transfer from an inaccessible polling place. So far, Jackson says, she has received six requests for transfers.

She's still waiting to hear from Reuter. "If he wants to go to [the Harford Heights school]," Jackson said, "all he has to do is call us and let us know."

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