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Maine To Expand Voting Access For Visually Impaired People After Lawsuit

Linda Coan O'Kresik
Bangor election worker George Burgoyne carries a voting sign into the Cross Insurance Center at 8 p.m. when polls closed in the July primaries.

Maine plans to adapt its voting system to increase accessibility to visually impaired people as it looks to resolve a lawsuit filed just after the July primary election, the first during the coronavirus pandemic in the state.

The lawsuitfiled in U.S. District Court contends the state violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Maine Human Rights Act because it has not offered a way for visually impaired people to vote safely and privately in the pandemic.

To remedy that, the state is working with vendors that provide absentee ballots to voters through an electronic ballot available online, according to a status update filed Friday. Users who self-certify as being visually impaired will be able to access state and municipal ballots.

It avoids what could have been a difficult situation for the state during a time when interest in accessible voting is high due to the pandemic. The state encouragedpeople to vote absentee, which they did at record rates, but it only offers paper ballots except for in a few circumstances.

The idea is that voters will be able to apply for a ballot and receive log-in information from Secretary of State Matt Dunlap’s office. They can use screen-reading software to fill out the ballot and submit it to the state, which will then distribute ballots back to municipalities for counting.

Municipalities will be responsible for sending in the text of their ballots. Assistant Attorney General Phyllis Gardiner said Dunlap’s office will reach out to municipalities about the system’s availability and give instructions on how to access it. At least seven states allow users to request and return ballots electronically, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The four voters all contacted their municipal clerks seeking accessible options for the July primary, but were not given options that allowed them to vote remotely and privately, according to the complaint filed by Disability Rights Maine attorney Kristin Aiello. She said three plaintiffs have underlying health conditions that would put them at risk if they voted in person.

Three of the plaintiffs were told to use paper ballots, while another was advised to use the polling location’s ExpressVote system, which uses touchscreen technology to create a marked paper ballot for people with disabilities. In other instances, they were advised to find someone they trust to help fill out their ballots.

The request system and the ballots will be tested by the vendors prior to a proposed launch date of Sept. 19, according to the update. Plaintiffs, other visually impaired people and advocates are invited to test the system as well.

Aiello said on a status call that she was “pleased” the state was committed to testing the system with people who would be likely to use it, saying that is critical to its success.

“I think everyone is on the same team here in wanting this system to be accessible for voters,” she said.

This story appears through a partnership with the Bangor Daily News.