By Deb Kelly
TERRE HAUTE — “Handicapped accessible” may mean wheelchair ramps and doors designed to open at the push of a button, but when it comes to voting at a satellite location in Vigo County, accessibility is in dispute.
Disabled voters have found that because of confusion regarding a state law, satellite voting is not for everyone.
Those who are disabled and need assistance to vote have been turned away from voting at the four satellite locations in Vigo County.
Jay Chickadaunce, 38, of Terre Haute was turned away Monday morning after waiting two hours in line to vote at the Southland Shopping Center satellite location.
Vigo County election officials believe that the law that allows a disabled voter to vote with a helper does not apply to satellite voting sites.
Chickadaunce’s mother, Dianna Williams, was visibly upset Monday afternoon as she helped her son out of the family’s van in their driveway on the city’s east side.
“We went to vote because we’re leaving town — we just decided to leave a couple of days ago,” she said. “And we waited two hours to vote and I get up there and the lady says you can’t go in there to help him vote, and I said, I’m his accommodation, and she said, well, no, not according to the law.”
Williams said the poll worker then made a call to the county clerk’s office, and while on the phone, Williams said, the worker described Chickadaunce as “a person in a wheelchair who probably has muscular dystrophy.”
Williams said she became very angry.
“That has nothing to do with him voting,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what his disability is.”
She added that she has been Chickadaunce’s helper since he began voting at age 21.
Chickadaunce will not get an opportunity to vote now, Williams said, for the first time in 17 years.
Williams said the poll worker told her that Chickadaunce had had four weeks to submit his vote.
“I told her I’m not on her timetable. She just denied my son the right to vote,” Williams said.
Indiana law allows certain voters — those who are disabled or who are unable to read or write English — to request assistance with voting, and to designate a person to assist. Some voters designate a spouse or parent; the only requirement is that the designated person must not be the voter’s employer or union officer, and that the designated person must sign a sworn affidavit.
For those who need assistance but do not designate someone to assist, there is a provision in the law stating that a voter may have the help of two official judges at a precinct, or may have two members of the absentee voter board assist if the person is voting absentee (one Democrat and one Republican).
The law does not mention satellite voting, likely because when it was written, satellite voting (absentee voting at locations other than the county courthouse) had not been established. The law states only that it applies to “each precinct and to absentee voting.”
Satellite voting is a type of absentee voting, but because the law is not clear, there has been confusion and inconsistency from county to county in Indiana — with some counties interpreting the law to mean that disabled voters needing assistance with absentee voting may use a designated person to assist at a satellite location, and other counties, including Vigo, refusing such assistance at satellite locations.
Vicki Pappas, director of the Center for Planning and Policy Studies at the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, said Thursday in an e-mail that she had been to an early voting site in Monroe County, where she asked about their satellite voting policy for those who need assistance.
“I asked whether a person who is blind could have a helper and vote early, and there was an immediate ‘of course!’ ” Pappas wrote.
Steve Tschida, a Terre Haute resident who is blind, was turned away last week when his wife appeared at the satellite voting location in The Meadows shopping center to assist him. Several other voters contacted the Tribune-Star over the weekend, claiming that they, too, had been denied voting assistance at satellite locations in recent days.
Pat Mansard, the clerk for Vigo County, said Monday that she has been in touch with officials of the State Election Commission.
“It is still unclear in Indiana election law whether that is permitted,” she said. “I think it’s probably a situation where the law is not clear yet because it’s not caught up yet with all this satellite voting.”
“It’s too bad this was not clarified at the onset because we would have been happy to have assisted any person … if we thought we could do that within the law,” she said.
“There is confusion,” she added. “We had been told in the past that [a satellite location is] not like a regular polling place, and you don’t have the sworn judges there from the two parties to assist people. It really is still unclear.”
One of the discrepancies in the law as interpreted by Vigo County is that a disabled voter may receive an absentee ballot by mail and have the assistance of a designated person – out of the sight of any election officials – but may not have the assistance of that same designated person at a satellite location.
Teresa Kautz, another Vigo County resident, said her son was denied voting recently at a satellite location.
“Finally we were told that the clerk’s office would send out an absentee ballot that I could help him with,” Kautz wrote in an e-mail. “Rather silly, and frankly I’m not sure what the difference is other than wasting a stamp but that’s how it was.”
Mansard said that discrepancy is not within her control.
“I don’t pass the laws,” she said, “and we are dependent upon the advice that we get. We do not have an election law attorney at our disposal.”
A telephone call to Brad King, the co-director of the Indiana Election Division of the Secretary of State, was not immediately returned Monday afternoon.
Joe McLain, the Help America Vote Act Administrator for the Indiana Secretary of State, stated in an e-mail Friday, “A voter may have a person of his or her choice assist when completing an absentee ballot as long as this person signs the affidavit required under state law. I would recommend [Tschida] contact the Vigo County Election Board and attempt to vote early again if that is what his wish is.”
Mansard said she hopes no one will be discouraged from voting because of the confusion.
“We’re doing everything possible to do everything as perfectly as we can,” she said. “We go way above and beyond to encourage and assist everybody.”
Deb Kelly can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org.