Federal choose: NC should develop choices for blind voters | Regional

Blind voters in North Carolina now have permanent access to an online voting system previously reserved for foreign and military voters, a federal judge ruled on June 15. The ruling also expands other accessibility requirements that will impact beyond accessible choice at home.

To the Holly Stiles, an attorney from Disability Rights NC who represented the plaintiffs on the case, this is a huge win.

“It is truly remarkable that for the first time in our history, the postal voting system will be fully accessible,” she said.

In the past, blind voters in North Carolina had to ask for assistance in voting by post, often from someone else in their home. This meant that visually impaired voters had to give their vote to someone else, which is a lack of privacy, and had no way of confirming that the vote was what they wanted, 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 1973 required the state to provide voters with disabilities the same access to elections, which were privately and independently labeled as voters without disabilities.

Judge Terrence Boyle The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina issued a restraining order to plaintiffs in September compelling the state to allow blind voters to vote online during the 2020 election.

In last week’s decision, Boyle issued a summary judgment, which meant there were no real facts and plaintiffs were entitled to a judgment without trial. Boyle made his injunction permanent, adding that the NC State Board of Elections must provide braille and large print options for absentee voting, meet accessibility standards with its website, and have an accessibility coordinator.

According to the state election committee, the state will also add accessible sample ballots.

Boyle’s ruling could also indirectly lead to more information about voters with disabilities in North Carolina. The NCSBE will be able to keep track of how many blind voters request online, braille or large print ballots and how many of those ballots are counted.

In 2020, according to the NCSBE, 54 people returned an accessible ballot via the portal, of which 50 were counted. Voters with disabilities only had a week to request an online vote during the general election.

“The fact that up to 50 people could use it is a great number,” said Stiles. She added that she expects that number to rise sharply for future elections.

Possible effects

Rosa Bichell, a disability attorney attorney and another attorney for the plaintiffs in the case, estimated that there are more than 160,000 registered visually impaired voters in the state, using census data on North Carolina residents with visual impairments and voter registration rates.

The Accessibility Coordinator is the first port of call for anyone in the state who is having difficulty choosing because of barriers for people with disabilities. A single point of contact could make it easier to find out how many of these voters encounter barriers in accessing the vote, no matter what method they use.

During a 2019 survey, Carolina Public Press asked all 100 counties how often voters with disabilities used accessible, personal voting machines. Of the 42 counties that responded, most said the accessibility equipment was rarely, if ever, used. Only four counties stated that they had problems with the machines.

According to the experts interviewed for the research, the low numbers suggested the counties likely did not have good data collection and voters with disabilities were likely to be underserved.

Voters with disabilities must continue to be vigilant about changing North Carolina laws that could affect their access to voting, including when and how the state voter ID card goes into effect, what form of ID card is required for mailing or online voting and the procedure for registering for the online voting.

Access with disabilities will also be part of technical debates, such as security and privacy in online voting, where voters voluntarily forego some of the voting secrecy in order to verify the voter and process the ballot.

“Voters with disabilities in these circumstances are not necessarily treated any differently than any other voter when it comes to tagging and choosing who to vote privately and independently,” Stiles said.

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