As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, voting by mail is rapidly becoming the preferred method of states and municipalities looking to protect the right to vote in the current primaries and the November election. But in many jurisdictions, the needs of people with disabilities are not being taken into consideration.
Washington State, Oregon and a handful of other states have conducted elections primarily by mail for years. There, the state mails ballots to eligible voters, while maintaining limited in-person voting options for people unable to vote by mail. In response to widespread fears about the safety of in-person voting during the pandemic, California, Michigan, and New Hampshire recently switched to voting primarily by mail.
However, in most states residents may vote by mail only by requesting an absentee ballot, and in many states voters must provide a reason why they cannot vote in person (e.g., military service or living in another state).
New York State is among a number of states that recently loosened its requirements for absentee ballots. Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order in late April allowing any voter to request an absentee ballot for the state’s June 23 primary. A written ballot, however, is no panacea for people who cannot fill out the paper ballot because, for example, they are blind or have physical disabilities such as paralysis, dystonia, or tremors.
On May 22, a coalition of disability rights groups filed a federal lawsuit against the New York Board of Elections (BOE), alleging that in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Board must provide a disability accessible absentee ballot. The parties quickly reached a settlement, filed in federal court June 3, requiring the BOE to email PDF ballots to voters upon request. This allows voters to mark their selections on a computer, print the ballot and return it to the BOE.
The federal government and most other states have been far less accommodating.
President Trump has actively discouraged states from expanding mail-in voting programs, much less accessible mail-in voting options. The Department of Justice has not released any recent guidance concerning voting accessibility, even though a group of disability rights advocates filed a complaint with the agency in April.
In Pennsylvania, the National Federation of the Blind filed a federal lawsuit prior to the state’s June 2 primary, demanding an accessible voting option. Although the litigation continues, the court issued a last-minute ruling May 28 forcing the state to provide accessible electronic voting forms prior to the primary.
In Wisconsin, already the subject of much voting-related turmoil this election, disability rights groups sued the state in May, demanding expanded mail-in voting options and improved in-person options, among other reforms. Litigation remains ongoing.
Disability rights advocates are also making a concerted push for Congress to enact increased protections. On June 3, Michelle Bishop, a disability voting rights specialist with the National Disability Rights Network, testified virtually before a House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties.
“Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice play a critical role in ensuring that elections are fair, accurate, safe, and accessible,” Bishop told the subcommittee. “The delicate patchwork of federal laws that protect the rights of voters with disabilities must be protected, restored, and enforced to their full capacity. We call them Americans with disabilities because they are, first and foremost, Americans. And their civil rights, as well as the health of our voters and the health of our democracy, depend on it.”