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Blind, Visually Impaired Voters File Suit Over Inability To Independently Vote Absentee In Maine

David Sharp
AP Images
Election workers process absentee ballots for the primary elections in Portland City Hall on July 14.

Several blind and visually impaired voters have filed a federal lawsuit over their inability to independently mark paper absentee ballots in Maine.

The four plaintiffs are alleging that the lack of accommodations violates the federal Americans With Disabilities Act and the Maine Human Rights Act. They are asking for a remedy before the November 3 general election.

One of the plaintiffs climbed Mount Katahdin with her service dog. Another is a professor and an expert in assistive technology. One was the first blind graduate of the University of Maine School of Law and has a distinguished career in state government. And the fourth serves on several boards to better the lives of people with disabilities.

"They're all productive, civic-minded people who are regular voters, who simply want to be able to vote privately and independently.”

Kristin Aiello is an attorney with Disability Rights Maine who filed the lawsuit against the Maine Secretary of State's Office and several city clerks on behalf of the four Maine residents. Aiello says their desire to vote absentee has been exacerbated by the new coronavirus pandemic. Three of them have underlying medical conditions that put them at high risk if they contract COVID-19. And while Gov. Janet Mills issued an emergency order that expanded the absentee voting program to encourage all registered voters to safely vote from home via absentee ballot, Aiello says her clients cannot do that.

"The issue here is that in Maine the only way you can vote absentee is by paper ballot,” Aiello says. “There's no electronic alternative available as there is in other states. So people who want to vote absentee receive a paper ballot in the mail and they have to be able to discern the wording on the paper and know where to sign and so on. If you're blind you can't do those things, and so you need an alternative."

Other states do offer technology that allows voters with disabilities to fill out and return absentee ballots electronically. They include Maryland, New York, Delaware and Michigan. And sometimes this has resulted from similar lawsuits. According to one complaint, Michigan voluntarily entered into a consent decree in May mandating that it "acquire a remote accessible vote-by-mail system" that allows voters with print disabilities to vote "electronically, privately and independently" in time for its August 2020 election. Aiello says it can be easily done with computer software, similar to the system used for service members overseas.

"The plaintiffs in this case have JAWS screen reader,” Aiello says. “That means when they get a document on their computer at home, with their own software, they can then read the ballot from their software on their computer."

Kristen Muszynski of the Maine Secretary of State's Office declined to comment on the pending lawsuit, which was filed July 15. But Muszynski says there is an accessible voting system available for any voter who wants to use it at polling places across the state.

"And it allows you to mark a ballot independently using means other than a pen and paper. It can be used by those unable to hear, unable to see, unable to physically mark a ballot."

And, says Muszynski, it can be fed into a tabulator or hand counted just like all the other ballots. The only stipulation is that, unlike an absentee ballot which can be filled out ahead of time and from a person's own home, this method can be used only at a polling place on election day.

Aiello says that's a problem for her clients who can't drive, don't want to use public transportation during the pandemic or who don't feel safe at the polls on election day.