When Gene Devitt voted in last spring's primary election at the Gates of Heaven Synagogue, he was dismayed to find that the bathroom was at the bottom of a narrow staircase.
"I noticed a man in a wheelchair and a woman with a cane that I knew," says Devitt, chairman of the Mansion Hill Neighborhood Association. "I measured the staircase and you couldn't even get the wheelchair carrying it down. The woman that has the cane said that if she could go down the staircase she'd worry about falling."
Devitt had other problems with the historic building, located by James Madison Park. The building is small, which means that people could end up waiting outside if there is a line to vote.
After speaking with seniors and people with disabilities in his neighborhood, Devitt tried to get the polling location changed. He says he brought his concerns to Capitol Neighborhoods, Inc. and to his alderwoman, Bridget Maniaci.
Maniaci refused to advocate for the change until she was sure that Gates of Heaven did not meet the standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act for polling places. Although the Common Council makes the final decision, a proposal to move a polling location needs to come from the area alder or the mayor's office.
"I told him flat out, 'Gene, I'm not going to move the polling location for 3,000 people just because you want it somewhere else, without more information,'" Maniaci says.
Gates of Heaven has been a polling location for years but Devitt, until last year's redistricting changed city ward boundaries, had voted at the downtown branch of Madison College.
Maniaci says she proposed renting an ADA accessible portable toilet for elections, although an ADA bathroom is not required at a polling site. She also met with the city Department of Civil Rights to discuss short and long-term solutions.
Devitt and Maniaci also identified and vetted alternate locations with City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl and Jason Glozier of the Department of Civil Rights. But none turned out to be easily available according to both Devitt and Maniaci. Witzel-Behl did not return multiple calls for comment.
Devitt wanted the location changed to Madison College's downtown campus. "When I voted [there] with my mom, who was handicapped at the end of her life, it took us an hour and thirty minutes," Devitt says. "But it was all inside, it's air conditioned, it's heated, they have seats; it's a nice place. She felt safe there."
But Maniaci says the campus is outside of the ward boundaries and not centrally located.
"If we're going to move it out of district, I would argue that there are better locations out of district, something like the Children's Museum," says Maniaci. The Madison Children's Museum, though still outside the boundaries, is closer to the center of the ward whereas the Madison College campus borders the ward's southwest corner.
In the face of Maniaci's opposition, Devitt tried to work through city staff. Just last week Maniaci was informed that the City Clerk, Parks Department and Mayor's office intended to move the polling location away from the Gates of Heaven.
But it was too late. Maniaci consulted with City Attorney Michael May who confirmed that a polling location cannot be moved 30 days before an election except in the case of an emergency.
I advised those who were interested that [the Gates of Heaven] didn't qualify for moving it at this time and that the [Government Accountability Board] agreed with us," May confirms. "The decision was made not to move."
"If this was something that the Clerk believed in, she had every opportunity to see this changed in a timely fashion and that didn't happen," Maniaci says. "To now come and three weeks before the election when this has been the long standing polling location and try to just lift it up to some undetermined location is ... wrong."
Undeterred, Devitt says he will continue his fight.
"The real problem cannot be solved at that building," Devitt says. "My whole concern is that people have the right to go vote and if they have concerns, handicapped or seniors, that those needs are taken care of. We have a building downtown that does this -- Madison College -- and the Gates of Heaven does not."