Election Day is Tuesday for the Queens Special Election Assembly, in District 27 — an area that stretches from Far Rockaway to Howard Beach and Woodhaven — and early voting is underway. For many New Yorkers with disabilities, casting a ballot has historically been fraught with issues, from steep ramps and narrow doorways to broken elevators and poorly placed machines (as Epicenter’s community manager Daniel Laplaza has reported). Since early voting started in the city in 2019, access to these sites still isn’t measuring up. Ninety four percent of early polling sites surveyed by two major organizations during the 2022 election cycle were not fully accessible, according to this report published by the Brennan Center for Justice.

Another polling place survey, which was conducted in all five boroughs during the last election cycle by the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York, was just as telling.

“What we found is that a lot of places are not accessible,” said Jeff Peters, the director of communications at CIDNY. “Places that are seemingly accessible, and maybe even make a good-faith effort to be accessible, are not fully accessible because people who are volunteers or polling place workers may not be fully trained or up to date.”

At some locations Peters visited, metal ramps with side handles — often the first thing voters encounter at polling sites — were built at an angle that made it difficult for people to use, especially in manual wheelchairs or walkers. He also saw door frames that were too narrow.

But one of the biggest issues CIDNY employees have been hearing about for years is poll workers’ inadequate training on the ballot marking device (BMD), an electronic device that provides voters, including voters with disabilities, the ability to mark their ballot privately and independently. 

Voters would ask to use the BMD, only to encounter poll workers who were unprepared — who would simply say they didn’t know or tag in the colleague who ran point on the BMD during the last election cycle.

“And imagine if you have a strong stance on something that you’re trying to get out for and you want to cast your vote, you want to have your vote counted, your voice heard, and maybe it’s not the easiest place to get to,” Peters said. “Maybe it’s hot outside, maybe it’s cold outside, maybe it’s raining outside, maybe you have to wait an hour and then you get in there and you go to vote and somebody says ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know how to use this particular device’ — which will allow you to vote — and come back again later. I can’t tell you when somebody’s going to be here [to help].’”

Michael Ring was one of those charged with helping — even when a voter wouldn’t actually need to use a BMD. A poll worker for the past six years or so, he “makes it [his] business” to set up the machine on election day and be the first to vote so he can give the machine a test run. He likes to educate fellow poll workers on using the device and other information on accessibility. But sometimes colleagues would see someone walking in using a cane and immediately wave him over to help with the machine. Ring would call them out on their assumptions.

“I’m like, ‘Why? You know, they just need to lean on something or maybe they need a chair,” he told Epicenter.

Ring encourages everybody to use the BMD at least once, ideally when the poll sites aren’t too busy, like with this “quiet” election cycle. Anyone can use it, as there’s no rule you must have a disability, he explained. It’s important for people to gain awareness of how useful it is — from simply allowing people to vote without using a pen to reading the ballot out loud.

A while back, Ring remembers the use of videos on disability etiquette during poll worker training. He hasn’t seen them since. One poll worker, faced with projector issues, simply directed poll workers to a YouTube link online and told them they just needed to watch that to know everything they needed to know. But with a poll-worker population that is largely made up of older adults, relying on the use of Smartphones or Internet connectivity for this training brings up other access issues.

His path to access advocacy

Ring’s journey to voting rights activism started with an unlikely situation: his troubles with a service designed for ease of access, Access-a-Ride.

AAR provides transportation for New Yorkers with disabilities or health conditions that prevent them from using just the subway or bus. The program also offers eligible riders a Metrocard, which they can use on the AAR vehicles to pay full subway/bus fare or on public transit for free.

But nine years ago, after a severe illness left him paralyzed and reliant on AAR to get around, Ring ran into some trouble with his Metrocard. At the time, losing your Metrocard a third time meant waiting six months for a new one, even though you’re paying for the replacement. It was a policy from a bygone era of cardboard Metrocards to make sure it wasn’t flashed at bus drivers by just anyone. For someone whose “hands and feet don’t work that great” and might be more apt to lose their Metrocard, the policy can be an especially punitive one.

Ring railed against a system he saw as obsolete — railed until he couldn’t anymore. Nothing was happening. Then he found out about the chance to speak publicly for two minutes at MTA monthly board meetings. He rehearsed for the big moment. His core message was, “why are you punishing me for being disabled? My hands don’t work. They drop things all the time.” It took a year, but this time, something happened: The MTA updated the policy to give AAR riders a new Metrocard, no six-month wait, no charge.

Changes were happening inside him, too. While Ring always had an activist spirit, he hadn’t quite found a home for it. At the meeting, the then-president of the civil rights organization Disabled in Action approached him. “She basically goes, ‘you’re really good at that,’” he told Epicenter. “Would you like to hang out with other people who do that too?’ She recruited me.”

Since then, Ring has been an active voice at quarterly meetings about voting access led by Ariel Merkel, ADA Coordinator at the Board of Elections. He enjoys his “crew” at these and other advocacy meetings as well as at the poll sites — who have each other’s back and buy each other a coffee or lunch. The marathoner says his last 40 years or so of distance running  — the past eight years, with support from the organization Achilles — gives him the patience to deal with the pace of change in voting accessibility. 

Meanwhile, watching new immigrants vote for the first time gives him hope.

“When they come to get their ballot, and they very quietly say, ‘It’s my first time,’ I love it,” Ring said. “I love to see someone who came to this country and gets to vote. I wish we were allowed to ring a bell.”

After the September election, he won’t be worrying about voting or local transit access for a bit. He’ll be in Berlin, running yet another marathon, thrilling in the sounds of the race.

This is part of a series of articles exploring health equity in New York that is funded by a grant from the Commonwealth Fund.

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