DOJ files voting access suit against Texas county

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The Department of Justice sued the nation’s third-largest county August 4, contending that its polling stations are overwhelmingly inaccessible to voters with mobility and visual disabilities.

“Like all voters, individuals with disabilities deserve the opportunity to vote at their local polling place – where they can greet neighbors, meet candidates and discuss the issues in their community,” said Vanita Gupta, head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, in a news release. “But many voters with disabilities in Harris County lack equal access to this basic and most fundamental right.

“Our lawsuit seeks to safeguard the right to vote and fulfill the (Americans with Disabilities Act’s) promise of equal opportunity for people with disabilities.”

In 2013, the DOJ surveyed 86 of the county’s 814 polling sites, finding that just 29 of them were fully accessible to people with mobility and visual disabilities. Of the other 57 locations, it found that all but five of them could be made at least temporarily accessible, via short-term remedies such as portable ramps. The DOJ issued a Letter of Findings to the County in September 2014.

On May 7, 2016, the County held a special election for a state representative seat. The DOJ investigated 32 of the County’s polling places, finding numerous architectural barriers, including “steep curb ramps and ramps, gaps in sidewalks and walkways, and locked gates along the route barring pedestrian access.” Some of these locations are the same found to be out-of-compliance in 2013.

“Defendant excludes qualified individuals with a disability from participation in or denies them the benefits of the County’s voting services, programs, or activities, or subjects them to discrimination, on the basis of disability, in violation of Title II of the ADA,” the DOJ wrote in the seven-page complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

Harris County, the county seat of Houston, contains more than four million residents.

The DOJ requested that the Court issue an order requiring the County to develop a plan for remedying the violations within 30 days, as well as award compensatory damages to individuals harmed by the County’s alleged ADA violations.

The lawsuit was filed one day after the state of Texas agreed to dilute its strict voters ID laws and spend $2.5 million on voter outreach efforts, according to the Houston Chronicle.

On July 20, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit struck down the state’s 2011 voter ID law, which would have prevented an estimated more than 600,000 people from voting because they lacked certain forms of identification material. The Court found that the law was racially motivated, to prevent access to voting for the state’s growing population of people of color.