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Blind voter denied ballot, voting help  (IN)

Deb Kelly   Tribune-Star    31 October 2008

A Terre Haute man says he is being discriminated against at satellite voting locations because of a disability, and according to federal disability law, he may be right.

Steve Tschida, 50, is blind, and needs assistance to vote. State law allows a voter with disabilities to designate a person to assist the voter in voting at an election. The law states that it applies to each precinct location as well as to absentee voting, but the law is not clear as to whether the law applies to satellite voting locations.

On Saturday, Tschida and his wife approached the satellite voting location in The Meadows shopping center on Terre Haute’s east side. When they explained Tschida’s disability and his need for assistance, they were told that he would not be allowed to vote because the law only applies to voting on Election Day, at a polling site.

Tschida said he had the same experience in 2004 at a satellite location, but thought perhaps it had been a fluke.

“The only thing I can say is that it just seems so unfair,” Tschida said during an interview in his home Thursday. “I just don’t understand in this day of equality and fairness in voting how this is the law.”

A deputy at the Vigo County clerk’s office who asked not to be named said the procedure at the satellite voting locations is legal and in accordance with state law.

“It’s not a matter of discrimination,” she said. “It’s not our policy. It’s state law that we have no control over.”

She said the law allowing a person with disabilities to appoint a person to assist is only applicable at a polling place.

“A satellite location is not a polling place,” she added.

She said there are only three ways to vote absentee in Indiana: by mail, in-person absentee voting at a satellite location, and by confined voting, in which a person who is confined because of illness or disability can have a ballot brought to their home or place of confinement by officials who will help the voter cast their ballot.

The employee said that a disabled or elderly person may not receive assistance with early voting at a satellite location. Such assistance is only applicable on Election Day at a polling place, she said.

However, the Americans with Disabilities Act may supersede state law, even if the state law is not clear on the issue.

A call to the Disability and Business Technical Assistance Center of the Great Lakes ADA shed some light.

Peter Berg, with Technical Assistance and Employer Outreach at the DBTAC Great Lakes ADA Center, responded to Tschida’s question by saying, “The ADA requires state and local governments to make reasonable modifications in policy, practices and procedures, when necessary to afford someone with a disability an equal opportunity.

“And it would seem it would be very reasonable to allow [Tschida]’s wife to assist him [at the satellite location]. In fact, it would seem reasonable if he did not have his wife that one of the volunteers at the polling place, one of the officials, would have assisted him.”

Berg said in order for the state or local government to refuse Tschida’s request for accommodation, the government would have to demonstrate that his request would “fundamentally alter the nature of a program or would result in an undue burden upon the entity.

“In terms of Title II of the ADA, I think there is a clear responsibility to modify their policies to ensure access … ” Berg said.

Vicki Pappas, director of the Center for Planning and Policy Studies at the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, said the situation Tschida and his wife faced Saturday could be a result of the law not having caught up yet with satellite voting.

Pappas said an advocate in Indianapolis with the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community is working with Indiana Sen. Patricia Miller, R-Indianapolis, “to revise the law to say it also applies to early voting.”

Pappas added, “It doesn’t make sense … they’re saying we don’t have to worry about accessibility except on Election Day, and that’s just not right.”

The employee at the Vigo County Clerk’s Office said if Tschida is “really upset,” he can try calling the Indiana State Legislature and “ask them to try to get the law changed.”

Indiana law also allows elderly voters and voters with disabilities to call the Hoosier Voter Hotline at 1-866-IN-1-VOTE (1-866-461-8683) if they wish to file a grievance about voting accessibility or to report possible fraudulent election activities.

No more information about the state law was immediately available from the Indiana State Election Division Office, as no one answered the phone and the voice mailbox was full.

Tschida says he still plans to vote on Election Day, Tuesday.

“I’m not wanting anyone to get in trouble,” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

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