The COVID-19 pandemic made mail-in-ballots the preferred voting option in the vast majority of states during the 2020 primaries, and it is likely to be the same in the November 3 general election. However, in their current form, most mail-in voting systems are not accessible to the blind and others with conditions that render them “print-disabled.”
“Traditional vote by mail systems are not, and have never been, accessible to voters with disabilities,” the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) said in testimony before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis on September 9. “People who are blind or low vision, have print disabilities, limited literacy, limited manual dexterity, and other disabilities cannot privately and independently mark, verify, and cast a hand-marked paper ballot. Dropping traditional paper ballots into the mail simply will not work for all voters.”
In states with mail-in voting, voters are sent a printed version of a ballot, which they must fill out and return by mail. Disability advocates have filed lawsuits in a number of states, arguing that voters should have the option to request electronic ballots, which they can then print and return in the mail. The benefit of electronic ballots is that they can be paired with screen-reader assistive technology to allow people who are blind or have other print disabilities to fill out their ballots privately, without the help of someone else.
Most of these lawsuits have raised the same basic claim: that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires states to make their voting systems accessible to people with disabilities.
The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed a lawsuit in July against the state of Virginia. On August 31, the state entered into a consent decree, agreeing to provide voters electronic ballots and otherwise make its system accessible to people with visual disabilities by September 18. New Hampshire entered into a similar agreement in August, also in response to litigation, from Disability Rights New Hampshire. Maine followed the same path. Litigation remains ongoing in North Carolina.
The NDRN has also compiled an extensive list of voting-related resources for people with disabilities, which can be accessed here.