A Hamilton group that advocates for people with disabilities wants federal and provincial human rights commissions to investigate transportation issues it says are making it difficult for people to vote.

Currently, the city’s paratransit system only gears its service to voters for four hours on election day. Voters have to book their rides to the polls a week in advance through the Disabled and Aged Regional Transit System (DARTS), and must compete with other voters for a lift during the crowded four-hour time period.

'A person with disabilities should be able to vote the same hours as everyone else.' - Tom Manzuk

That’s unacceptable, said Tom Manzuk. He’s a member of the city’s accessibility for persons with disabilities committee, which passed the motion on Tuesday.

“A person with disabilities should be able to vote the same hours as everyone else, and have transportation available, same as everyone else,” Manzuk said.

The motion asks the provincial and federal ombudsmen and human rights commissions to investigate the issue. In 2006, the advisory committee asked DARTS to have its election-day service in place the entire day, said vice-chair Tim Nolan. It happened but it didn't last.

By 2010, DARTS clients were back to having four hours, said Terri Wallis, a committee member who is running for council in Ward 2. And during the municipal election on Oct. 27, it will only be four hours again.

“It’s very hard because when you’ve got a number of people needing a ride within a four-hour time window,” she said.

Making it too hard to vote

People with disabilities can use DARTS any time. But the usual ridership rules make it too hard for people to vote, Wallis said.

'Do they want to bankrupt the city to get to vote? What’s the solution?' - Coun. Terry Whitehead

DARTS has a rule that once it drops off a rider, that person has to stay where they are for an hour before they can get a ride again. That’s far longer than it usually takes to vote.

Under the election-day provisions, the DARTS driver will take the person to a poll and wait while they vote. To speed up the process, the voter using DARTS is moved to the front of the polling station line.

DARTS users call a week in advance to arrange the ride to vote.

Coun. Terry Whitehead, a member of the DARTS board, says people with disabilities can vote in advance polls too. Giving them special provisions all voting day gives them better access than an able-bodied voter.

“There’s no one taking an HSR bus directly to a poll, unless you can tell me where that takes place,” he said.

Too expensive to expand the hours

“If we didn’t offer all those advance polls and it was limited to election day, I would agree with them. Our obligation is to make sure they have an opportunity to vote. Do they want to bankrupt the city to get to vote? What’s the solution?”

The DARTS system is "not perfect by any stretch of the imagination," Whitehead said. But the system is "stretched" and giving priority to voters takes it away from other areas.

"Do we stop bringing people to their dialysis appointments?" he said. "Do we all the sudden hire 60 more qualified drivers and 60 more buses?

"I don’t think it’s realistic. I understand the frustration, but on other side, they can’t be blinded to the fact that these systems have limitations."

Paula Kilburn, a committee member who is visually impaired, has used DARTS for more than 20 years. If she wants to vote, she said, she not only calls days in advance for a ride, but has to attend an advance poll because that's when the city uses machines for people with visual impairments.

At least extend the hours, group says

Voting is such a hassle, she said, that her husband votes for her.

'The more convenient we make voting, the more it encourages people.' - Coun. Sam Merulla

Advance polls, Wallis said, are not always accessible. She recalls trying to vote at one in her wheelchair and "the incline going down to glass door was so steep that I almost went through the glass door." 

The committee wants DARTS to, at minimum, extend its election-friendly hours so the service is offered from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and then a second window later in the day. It wants it for the Oct. 27 election.

In four years, it would also like an on-demand service, where a voter can call for a ride rather than having a book a week in advance.

The committee also voted Tuesday for the city to look into increasing the number of polling stations for 2018. Before Hamilton amalgamated, there were 10 times as many, Coun. Sam Merulla said.

Increase polling stations too

Increasing the number of polls makes it easier for seniors and people with disabilities to vote, the Ward 4 councillor said.

“The more convenient we make voting, the more it encourages people.”

Whitehead agrees on the need for more polling stations.

“It’s ridiculous that we have a fraction of the polls that a provincial and federal election has,” he said. “It creates huge lineups in some areas. You can’t even park at some polls in my area.”

The committee voted to ask council to examine the number of polls when it reviews ward boundaries over the next four years.

City councillors will vote to approve the committee's decisions at a general issues committee on Sept. 17, and council will ratify them on Sept. 24.