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Testimony: Fl elections restrictions erect ‘access barriers’ for disabled people


Testimony: Fl elections restrictions erect ‘access barriers’ for disabled people

Feb 10, 2022 | 11:32 am ET
By Michael Moline
Testimony: Fl elections restrictions erect ‘access barriers’ for disabled people
Credit: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

A disabilities rights activist testified Thursday that Florida’s new restrictions on voting by mail will make it difficult for people like her to participate in elections.

Olivia Babis, an analyst with Disability Rights Florida, cited factors including a legal requirement forcing local supervisors of election to move ballot drop boxes inside their main or branch offices and restricting their availability outside times set aside for early-in person voting — which can vary but often run for 14 days.

Testimony: Fl elections restrictions erect ‘access barriers’ for disabled people
Olivia Babis. Credit: Disability Rights Florida

The changes erect “access barriers’ — “not being able to open the door [to an office]; not having a stable path to travel; those are things that prevent people from being able to access the facility to put their ballot in the drop box,” Babis testified.

“The very reason why some people go to the drop box outside, it’s more accessible; now we’re running into different obstacles that they experience when they go to vote in person.”

The testimony came as the second week wound down in a trial testing the validity of SB 90, the 2021 law pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis through the Florida Legislature ostensibly to promote the integrity of elections amid former President Donald Trump’s Big Lie that he’d been cheated of victory in the 2020 election.

Civil- and voting-rights groups including the League of Women Voters and NAACP are pressing a lawsuit before U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee (via a Zoom hearing) alleging discrimination against racial minorities and older and disabled voters.

Defending the law are lawyers representing Secretary of State Laurel Lee and the state and national Republican parties.

Babis complained that the law exacerbates longstanding problems with accessibility for disabled people, including lack of accessible parking, inconvenient location of ramps, and lack of mechanisms or personnel to open doors to voting places — as well as barriers inside voting places.

She cited its ban on “line warming,” meaning providing water, snacks, or seating for people standing in long voting lines. SB 90 bans all that within 150 feet of a voting place.

She cited the example of a prospective voter who needed a walker standing in a lengthy line. A companion approached elections staff seeking a chair for him, only to be told No.

“He was getting tired; he was sweating profusely; and he eventually got out of the line and they were getting ready to leave,” Babis said. “He left without voting.”

Additionally, the law has disrupted her organization’s planning — for example, requiring auditing of supervisors’ websites for disability-access problems now instead of after the 2022 or 2024 elections.

“Would you agree with me, it sound like your organization is fluid and able to respond to changes in election law or new legislation that might be passed?” Tara Price, an attorney representing the Republicans, asked Babis.

Babis disagreed. “When we take on a big project like that, obviously, it takes a lot of resources and we have to deemphasize other priorities,” she said.

The plaintiffs’s attorneys also called Maria Matthews, director of the Division of Elections within the Florida Department of State, who testified that nothing in SB 90 required her office to strengthen longstanding election-security measures, including checking voting records against other state archives and Social Security data to screen against voters who have died or moved away from their registered addresses.

Additionally, in 2019 the state joined the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, which allows comparison of Florida’s voter records with those in other states, she said.

SB 90 does require voters to provide a Florida drivers’ license or ID number or else a Social Security number to quality for a vote-by-mail ballot. However, Matthews testified, as of last year more than 681,000 voters had none of those numbers on record — they’d registered before 2006, when the state began requiring disclosure of those identifiers.

Moreover, 1.5 million voters had on file only a Social Security number and 1.3 million only a drivers’ license of state ID number.

All three numbers have declined since then as officials update records — those with no ID number on file now number around 400,000, Matthews said.

“I guess could be on that list — I have no idea,” Walker noted.

The situation could complicate their requests for mail-in ballots, Matthews conceded: They might have to visit an elections supervisor’s office to verify their identities, or designate someone to do so on their behalf.