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Middlesex is asking residents to fund a more accessible polling place this Town Meeting Day

Middlesex is asking residents to fund a more accessible polling place this Town Meeting Day

Vermont Public | By Elodie Reed

Published February 29, 2024 at 5:00 AM EST

A photo showing two people inside a room standing by a wooden door. Both people are light-skinned and have greyish-blonde hair, and are wearing winter jackets. One person is pointing to a button, and the other person is looking on.
Middlesex Town Clerk Sarah Merriman, right, shows Lindsey Owen, the Disability Rights Vermont executive director, the dreaded lift inside the town hall, which is quite old and isn’t easy to use.

On the outside, Middlesex Town Hall looks like the postcard version of Vermont.

The siding is whitewashed and lined with dark green shutters. At its front is a tower — an echo of the church that burned down here before the town hall was built in the early 1900s.

It’s two stories tall. Voting during statewide and presidential elections happens on the top floor.

And the problem, at the moment, is getting up there.

A photo of a white building with a green door and shutters, with cement steps leading up to the door. Yellow caution tape is strung across the front of the steps, which have snow on them.
In its current state, the Middlesex Town Hall has to rope off the stairs to its second floor entry due to ice and snow. On Town Meeting Day, voters will decide whether to fund a design phase for a town hall renovation that would, among other things, make the building more accessible.

“So, it’s dreadful,” says Middlesex Town Clerk Sarah Merriman.

She’s often responsible for helping people in and out of the town hall’s lift. At over two decades old, she says it’s in its final days.

It has heavy doors and is hard to operate — and sometimes, even gets stuck.

“I was in the lift trying to help a grandmother with this baby stroller and I got stuck in an August primary, on a day when it was sweltering,” Merriman says. “And, you know, that’s not good. Dangerous.”

She says the building cannot remain this way.

“We have an inaccessible town hall, as far as anyone is concerned,” Merriman says.

A photo of a light-skinned hand pushing a button. Around the hand are signs reading "Before moving the unit, lock the wheels of the wheel chair," "capacity two people maximum load 750lbs" and "in case of fire do not use elevator use stairways." There's also a red emergency button.
Inside the lift at Middlesex Town Hall, which is hard to get in and out of, and to use.

Middlesex is not alone. While state and federal law require polling places to be accessible to voters with disabilities, that’s not always the reality in what are often historic buildings.

An ongoing analysis of Vermont’s 266 polling places shows that many have accessibility issues, particularly with parking and thresholds into buildings.

Those polling place surveys are being done by Disability Rights Vermont. The nonprofit agency receives money from Congress to ensure people with disabilities have equal access to the voting process.

“When places are not accessible, and don’t put in all of that effort and the legwork ahead of time to just be accessible to everybody, I think it creates — it sets everybody up for a less than successful interaction or experience,” says Lindsey Owen, the executive director of Disability Rights Vermont.

She adds that when the pressure falls on individuals with disabilities to ask for accommodations at polling places, because of the stigma attached to disability, this can become a barrier to voting.

A photo of a light-skinned person wearing glasses and with blonde hair in a half-ponytail. She's wearing a jacket and standing outside with snowy mountain in the background.
Lindsey Owen, the executive director of Disability Rights Vermont.

National studies from Rutgers University show voters with disabilities turn out at lower rates than voters without disabilities. In 2020 and 2022, the studies found, more than 10% of voters with disabilities experienced difficulty with casting their ballot.

“Everyone can be well-intentioned, but people will also feel uncomfortable. Uncomfortable that either their space isn’t accessible or the person feels like, ‘Oh, I need extra attention, or I need extra support,'” Owen says. “And so I think on both sides, people are feeling a little bit of shame.”

Legally, the onus is on the government to make voting accessible.

“So to the extent that towns can really initiate that and say, ‘We want you here,’ like, ‘We want you to feel like you belong, and we really want to hear your voice,’ I think that will go a long way to people coming forward and asking for those accommodations and participating,” Owen says.

There’s a lot of potential participation at stake. In Vermont, one in four people have a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fortunately, Owen says a good number of election officials are interested in increasing that participation.

“We are a law firm, and so sometimes people are a little bit wary of engaging with us and having us do a survey of their polling place,” she says. “But through those trainings and education around the [Americans with Disabilities Act], there were many town clerks in the state that were like, ‘Please come, come see my office, like, tell us what we need to improve upon.'”

A photo of a person wearing a black dress and tights and a pink and purple scarf. Her hair is greyish blonde and is up in a bun. Around her is a desk with a keyboard, glasses and drink, and a painting of a white town hall. More papers and boxes and cabinets are around the room, which has natural light coming in through the windows.
Middlesex Town Clerk Sarah Merriman sits for a portrait at her desk in the town hall.

Like in Middlesex. Town Clerk Merriman welcomed the survey that Disability Rights Vermont completed in 2022. It pointed out the issues with the elevator lift, among others.

“It added some oomph to what I had been saying to the select board, which is like, ‘You know, our lift is about to die, and this place is inaccessible,'” Merriman says.

She adds that while money is usually the obstacle to making accessibility improvements, having a disability rights law firm tell you your space is not compliant with accessibility law is, well, helpful.

“When that report came out, and that survey came out, we distributed it to the board,” Merriman says. “I think they thought — well, probably they thought, ‘Uh-oh, we’re gonna get sued.’ You know, it’s a, it was a motivator.”

On Town Meeting Day, Middlesex voters will decide whether to fund a $65,000 design phase for town hall renovations. It would include better accessibility — and replacing the dreadful lift.

That town meeting will take place at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at Rumney Memorial Middle School — a more accessible alternative to the town hall.

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