One alternative might be having several sites for voters with disabilities.
By VIRGINIA ROSS
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- Lawrence County officials are exploring ways to make polling sites throughout the county accessible for all.
Commissioners authorized county elections director Marlene Gabriel on Thursday to form a committee to study the issue. Gabriel said three of the county's 106 polling sites are equipped to handle residents with disabilities. She estimated it would take about $93,000 to bring the remaining 103 sites in compliance with federal regulations specified in the Help America Vote Act, which went into effect about two years ago.
As part of the act, each polling site must have a touch screen voting machine by Jan. 1.
"It's a big task making our polling places accessible," Gabriel said. "We need to really be looking at this now."
Earlier this year, the county was awarded $23,000 in federal funds earmarked for the upgrade because of the new voting act.
To receive that money, which is disbursed by the state, the county agreed to comply with federal regulations to make its polling places accessible for every voter.
"But the amount we're getting doesn't cover it," Gabriel said. "We need several people to work together to explore our options and see how we're going to do this." Gabriel said one consideration is to create a central site at the courthouse that would be accessible to individuals with special needs.
She said county officials would need to obtain state approval before pursuing that approach. Commissioner Ed Fosnaught suggested setting up three accessible polling sites -- one at the courthouse, one in the southern part and one in the northern part of the county. He also recommended looking at consolidating several voting sites, especially in New Castle.
"I think it might be easier, and a lot more cost effective, to try to equip fewer places," he said. "It would, for example, cut the cost tremendously to cut out some of our polling sites in municipalities where there are several there."
Gabriel said she also has considered consolidating sites. She said she cannot estimate the number of voters with disabilities in the county. She said these individuals have the option of voting with absentee ballots, but many have said they want the experience of voting at the polls.
During the past few months, as commissioners have carried their meetings to various parts of the county, several residents have complained about the situation. "I hear about it from people," Gabriel said. "The thing is, we have to find out if our polling places are even willing to allow us to do this work at their site. They may not want us in there doing all of this. If they pull out, we may need to find new polling places. And we know that moving the polling places deters people from voting."