Blind voters in North Carolina will now have permanent access to an online voting system previously reserved for overseas and military voters, a federal judge ruled June 15. The ruling also expands other accessibility requirements that will have impacts beyond accessible at-home voting.
For Holly Stiles, a lawyer for Disability Rights NC who represented the plaintiffs in the case, this is a huge win.
“This is actually truly remarkable, that the absentee voting process is going to be fully accessible for the first time in our history,” she said.
Before, in order to vote absentee-by-mail, blind voters in North Carolina had to request assistance, often from another person in their home. This meant voters with visual impairments had to disclose their votes to another person, which is a lack of privacy, and had no way to confirm the ballot was accurate to their wishes, which is a lack of security.
The lawsuit argued that the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, required the state to offer the same access to the ballot, marked privately and independently, to voters with disabilities as to voters without disabilities.
Judge Terrence Boyle of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina granted the plaintiffs a preliminary injunction in September that forced the state to allow blind voters to vote online during the 2020 election.
In last week’s ruling, Boyle granted summary judgment, meaning there was no genuine issue of material facts and the plaintiffs were entitled to a judgment as a matter of law without a trial. Boyle made his preliminary injunction permanent and added that the N.C. State Board of Elections must provide Braille and large-print options for absentee-by-mail ballots, meet accessibility standards with its website and have an accessibility coordinator.
The state will also add accessible sample ballots, according to the State Board of Elections.
Boyle’s ruling may also indirectly lead to more information about voters with disabilities in North Carolina. The NCSBE will be able to track how many blind voters request online, Braille or large-print ballots, as well as how many of those ballots are counted.
In 2020, 54 individuals returned an accessible ballot using the portal, 50 of which were counted, according to the NCSBE. Voters with disabilities had only one week to request an online ballot during the general election.
“That even as many as 50 people got to use it, that’s a great number,” Stiles said. She added that she expects that number to increase by a lot for future elections.
Rosa Bichell, a lawyer for Disability Rights Advocates and another lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case, used census data on North Carolina residents with vision disabilities and voter registration rates to estimate that there are upward of 160,000 registered voters in this state with vision disabilities.
The accessibility coordinator will be the go-to person for anyone in the state who is having difficulty voting due to barriers affecting people with disabilities. Having a single point of contact could make it easier to learn how many of those voters face barriers in accessing the vote, no matter what method they pursue.
During a 2019 investigation, Carolina Public Press surveyed all 100 counties about how often voters with disabilities used accessible, in-person voting equipment. Of the 42 counties that responded, most said the accessibility equipment was rarely, if ever, used. Only four counties reported having any issues with the machines.
According to the experts interviewed for the investigation, the low numbers indicated counties likely did not have good data collection and voters with disabilities were likely being underserved.
Voters with disabilities will still need to pay close attention to shifting laws in North Carolina that could affect their access to the ballot, including when and how voter ID will go into effect in the state, what form of ID will be required for by-mail or online voting and the process for registering to vote online.
Disability access will also be part of more technical debates, such as the security and privacy of online voting, which requires voters to voluntarily waive a portion of the secrecy of the ballot in order to verify the voter and process the ballot.
“Voters with disabilities are not necessarily being treated differently than any other voter in this circumstance, in terms of marking and choosing who they want to vote for privately and independently,” Stiles said.