RALEIGH — Blind and visually impaired voters will face discrimination and difficult choices in the 2020 elections, a new lawsuit claims, unless North Carolina acts quickly to improve options for voting by mail.
North Carolina has specialized voting machines for people with disabilities who vote at any polling place around the state. But this year, the coronavirus pandemic is expected to lead to a massive increase in voting by mail. And the only option for that is a paper ballot.
Having only a paper ballot for mail-in voting, the new lawsuit says, means that unless they want to risk their health to vote in person, blind voters will be forced to not only tell someone else who they'd like to vote for, but also trust that person to actually fill out their ballot.
"Ensuring that absentee voting is made accessible for blind voters is particularly important because citizens with disabilities already face many barriers to full and equal participation in the voting process, in contrast with sighted voters," the lawsuit says.
Nearly 300,000 North Carolinians had a visual disability as of 2016, according to the National Federation of the Blind — close to 3% of the state's population.
The N.C. State Board of Elections has previously been in contact with one of the groups that sued. State Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell sent them a letter last month addressing some of their concerns — including the question of getting a trusted person to help them fill out an absentee ballot.
She said anyone who wants help with a mail-in ballot "may request assistance from a Multipartisan Assistance Team (MAT), a team of bipartisan volunteers trained and authorized by the county board of elections."
And while there are strict rules in place for most voters when it comes to getting outside help requesting an absentee ballot or mailing it in once it has been filled out, state law does have exemptions for voters who are blind or have another disability.
Brinson Bell also noted the availability of specialized voting machines for voters with disabilities at polling places. And North Carolina's election website, ncsbe.gov, is scheduled to be revamped by the end of August, she said, in large part to be more accessible to people with disabilities who are trying to get more information about the state's elections.
"The State Board is committed to promoting accessibility for voters with disability, including blind voters," Brinson Bell said.
But the people and groups who filed the lawsuit disagree. They say the state's voting system discriminates against people with disabilities.
Concerns with health, privacy
Many can't take advantage of the specialized voting machines because their polling place isn't served by public transportation, the lawsuit says. And others might choose to simply not vote, rather than being forced to tell someone else who they're voting for.
"The denial of one's right to vote with full privacy and independence is particularly disenfranchising, as these are the hallmarks of free voting in a democracy," the lawsuit says. "Requiring voters with vision disabilities to dictate their votes to third parties in order to vote absentee will inevitably deter some voters and further decrease turnout rates among citizens with disabilities."
The individual plaintiffs in the lawsuit are a mix of Democratic and Republican voters. They're joined by Disability Rights North Carolina, the North Carolina Council of the Blind, and the alumni association of the Governor Morehead School, a school in Raleigh for visually impaired children from around the state.
And blind voters, the lawsuit says, probably have more reasons than most to want to practice social distancing during coronavirus — including not traveling to polling places in person.
"While blindness on its own is not a risk factor for COVID-19, people with vision disabilities have increased risk of exposure due to their disabilities," the lawsuit says. "People with vision disabilities often rely on touch more than sighted people and therefore are at heightened risk of touching surfaces with the virus. Further, blind people may have difficulty social-distancing because they may not be able to tell if others around them are adequately distanced, nor can they as readily confirm whether others around them are wearing masks."
Other election lawsuits
Numerous other groups have sued North Carolina over various facets of the 2020 elections, in addition to this latest lawsuit on behalf of blind voters who wish to vote by mail. Those other lawsuits include:
• A challenge to voter ID rules, in state court. Judges have so far ruled for the challengers and have temporarily blocked voter ID, but it's not over yet.
• A challenge to voter ID rules, in federal court. Again, judges have — so far — sided with the challengers and have temporarily blocked voter ID.
• A challenge to rules for voter registration deadlines, rules for absentee voting and more.
• Another challenge to absentee voting rules, including a request that voters get a chance to correct any discrepancies that would otherwise cause officials to throw out their ballot.
• An accusation that Mecklenburg County has not maintained accurate voter lists, possibly increasing the potential for fraud.
• A challenge to the touchscreen voting machines used in places like Charlotte, Asheville and Wilmington, claiming they are problematic for election security and for coronavirus concerns.
• A challenge to the vote-by-mail reforms passed after the 9th Congressional District election-fraud scandal in 2018, which an advocacy group says went too far.