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Tuesday May 24th, 2016 5:28PM

Dalton family aims to raise awareness about voting issues

By The Associated Press
DALTON, Ga. (AP) -- When Tomas Vaquera immigrated from Mexico to this country in the 1980s he made sure his children understood what it means to be an American citizen.

"Your rights weren't something we took lightly in our house," Angelina Vaquera-Linke, Vaquera's daughter, recalled.

But when it was Angelina's turn to pass on such insights, she wasn't sure she would be able to. Her son, Aubrey, was autistic.

"He didn't speak and kept to himself," she said.

Comparing that Aubrey with the outgoing 19-year-old today "brings tears" to Angelina's eyes, especially when she thinks back to 2012 when Aubrey voted for the first time in the presidential election.

"I felt great to have a say," Aubrey, a Chattanooga State Community College student, said. "It's great to have my opinion have that much of an impact on the community, as much as anyone else's vote."

But many people with disabilities never vote, Aubrey said, because "they don't even know they can."

"It's a confusing process," Aubrey said. "I'm sure it is for everybody, with all the paperwork. I had to learn a lot. But being autistic, I think about what it must be like for people with any developmental disabilities. This must be a very confusing and very hard process for them."

Mother and son are crusading to change that by trying to raise awareness in north Georgia. Their primary aim is to educate those with disabilities on voter registration and options like mail-in ballots.

"We really want to start and go speak to groups of people who have those disabilities, or families," Vaquera-Linke said. "To talk about what steps you need to take, what documents you need to have, how to get a photo ID. In some areas of the country, people with disabilities rally and mobilize. But here? Not so much. Here, we don't have public transit or the resources some urban areas have."

So what would be a good fix in Election Day services for people with disabilities?

"I think one big thing is that there should be some specific training to some volunteers at election places to make it a more accessible place," Angelina Vaquera-Linke said, adding that it wouldn't be "unreasonable" to let people with disabilities skip to the front of the line because they often rely on transportation services that won't wait around for hours.

Officials with the Whitfield County Board of Elections said some of those policies already exist here. Voters with disabilities can be moved to the front of the line between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. and are allowed any assistance they need, officials said, adding that some election officials are trained to handle most situations involving a person with disabilities. If the individual prefers, officials noted, they can rely on help from a family member or a friend who is allowed to go into the ballot box with them.

Mary Hammontree, Board of Elections registrar, said she is also open to the idea of reaching out to disabled voters in the area who don't understand the registration process, but the office hasn't done something like that in the past.

Angelina and Aubrey said they participated in an advocacy program through All About Developmental Disabilities, a state nonprofit which is trying to create "unpaid lobbyists in the community" who can influence decision-making for the betterment of people with disabilities.

Angelina said she wants to begin partnering with local organizations to try and fill a "gap" she sees in offering transportation to polling stations for this year's elections.

"We're really reaching out right now," she said. "We're just looking for help."

Anyone interested in connecting with Angelina can write to votestrongga(at)gmail.com. They can also visit a recently made Facebook page that can be found at http://www.facebook.com/votestronggeorgia .
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