- Associated Press - Saturday, April 22, 2017

HOUSTON (AP) - A federal judge told officials he is considering an independent review of the Houston area’s polling locations to ensure they are accessible to disabled voters.

The possible action by U.S. District Judge Alfred H. Bennett is part of an ongoing lawsuit the U.S. Department of Justice filed last year, the Houston Chronicle reported (https://bit.ly/2owDUX1 ).

The lawsuit accuses Harris County, where Houston is located, of violating the constitutional mandate that voting sites comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

At a court hearing Friday, Bennett discussed the possibility of appointing a special master to oversee the review. No decision has yet been made.

“We’re talking about something that really needs an intensive review,” Bennett said during the hearing. “There’s no blanket order I can give. We’re going to have to look at almost each of these sites or on a site-by-site basis.”

The lawsuit alleges that there is a lack of appropriate parking, ramps, sidewalks, entry ways, voting space and other mandatory accommodations for disabled voters.

Harris County, Texas’s most populous county, has more than 400,000 people with disabilities.

Robert Soard, first assistant to the Harris County Attorney, said it would be premature to comment about the prospect of a special master overseeing accessibility of voting sites.

County Clerk Stan Stanart, who oversees local elections, said the lawsuit is frivolous, politically motivated and centered on insignificant technicalities at sites the county doesn’t own.

“When the DOJ brought this lawsuit they had zero people who were complaining,” he said. “To the best of my knowledge, we don’t know of anyone who had an issue.”

The possibility of a review of polling locations drew praise from disability rights advocates.

“Bringing in a special master is monumental because you’re saying there is a problem and it needs to be watched,” said Toby Cole, a Houston attorney who has closely watched the case. “It would be a significant move to make sure that the rights of people with disabilities are protected, and voting is probably the most fundamental of those rights.”

Bennett asked the attorneys on Friday to return with specific details about the range of problems at local voting sites.

Elizabeth Johnson, the lead attorney on the case for the Justice Department, said she anticipates a need for temporary fixes at polling sites - such as adding traffic cones or temporary ramps - rather than permanent fixes.


Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

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