Stickers saying "I voted" are handed out at polling places to voters in North Carolina. File photo by Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

North Carolina voters with disabilities now have the ability to vote online.

The process works much the same way as online voting works for military and overseas voters but has until now been inaccessible to other voters. 

Despite federal law requiring all modes of voting to be accessible to voters with disabilities, North Carolina still had not made that accommodation to its own by-mail system. In previous years, by-mail voting accounted for at most 5% of the votes cast. 

This year, driven by the threat of COVID-19, by-mail voting ballooned and became a go-to option for voters who were medically vulnerable to the virus. This did not account for voters with sight impairments, according to Holly Stiles, an attorney at Disability Rights North Carolina, which sued the state in July. 

“When the pandemic hit, blind voters found themselves excluded from the absentee voting process by paper ballots they could not read or mark by themselves, and which required them to put all of their trust and confidence in a sighted person to vote,” Stiles said in a statement. 

Though the threat of the pandemic heightened the urgency backing the lawsuit, the right to accessible voting by mail is independent of the health concerns in this election, the judge in the case ruled. Even if voters did not fear exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19, they should by law have an accessible vote-by-mail option, according to U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle’s ruling. 

During the arguments in the case, the N.C. State Board of Elections agreed the plaintiffs would probably win the case but argued it was too late for them to change the procedure to vote by mail. Boyle issued his ruling on Sept. 24, almost three weeks after the state started sending out absentee-by-mail ballots. 

But Boyle said the state already had a reasonable solution in place. North Carolina allows military and overseas voters to vote online and could do as other states have done — simply expand who qualifies to use the online voting portal. 

Limited window of opportunity

By the time the state made the necessary changes, voters with sight disabilities only had a week to use the portal, which was announced in a press release by the NCSBE on Oct. 20. 

The deadline to request an absentee-by-mail ballot, either through the online portal or by mail, is 5 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 27. The online portal is compatible with screen readers. 

County boards may take several days to process the online ballot request, according to a statement from the state board: “The county board will send the voter an email to let the voter know when their ballot is available in the portal. The voter may then access their ballot online.” 

Disability Rights NC and the visually impaired voters who sued the state likened the lack of accessible voting to electoral disenfranchisement and voter suppression. 

“For democracy to be fully inclusive, all voters must have an independent and secret ballot, and I am proud to be involved in making sure that right is protected for blind and visually impaired voters in North Carolina like myself,” plaintiff Ricky Scott said in a statement after the court ruled in his favor. 

Voters with disabilities can also vote by mail and receive assistance, either by a Multipartisan Assistance Team or by a person of the voter’s choosing, as long as that person is over 18 years old and is not a candidate on the ballot. 

Relying on others to fill out their ballots, though, is distasteful to the plaintiffs, who characterized it as “dehumanizing” when Carolina Public Press first wrote about this lawsuit.  

Voters with disabilities can also vote in person. Every early voting site and polling place must have an accessible voting machine. Voters with disabilities can also opt to vote at curbside and not have to enter the voting enclosure at all. 

The measures do not solve the challenge that voters with disabilities would still likely need assistance getting to the polls, which is a problem solved by online voting or vote by mail. 

By cross-referencing census and voter registration data, Rosa Lee Bichell, an attorney for Disability Rights Advocates, one of the plaintiffs, estimated 150,000 North Carolina voters are unable to mark their own ballots due to a disability. 

The state board could not provide CPP with the number of online ballots requests made by voters with disabilities by the time of publication, though Boyle said the procedures should be implemented no matter how many voters use them.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, he noted, does not require people to participate in public programs, such as voting, in specific ways. 

“Rather, its focus is on providing reasonable accommodations so that disabled individuals may fully participate should they so choose,” Boyle wrote. 

This expansion is only in place for the November election, based on the immediately effective yet temporary order issued by a Boyle on Sept. 24. 

The lawsuit will proceed next year. 

“What’s left is for us is to litigate the accessibility of all future elections for blind voters,” Stiles wrote in an email to CPP.

Jordan Wilkie

Jordan Wilkie is a Report for America corps member and is the lead contributing reporter covering election integrity, open government, and civil liberties for Carolina Public Press. Email jwilkie@carolinapublicpress.org to contact him.

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