North Carolina Council of the Blind v. North Carolina State Board of Elections
On July 27, 2020, disability organizations filed a lawsuit against the North Carolina State Board of Elections for excluding North Carolinians with disabilities from their Absentee Voting program. The lawsuit charges the state agency with discrimination against voters who are unable to independently and privately mark a paper ballot due to vision disabilities. All North Carolinians deserve to vote safely and independently, especially during the COVID-19 crisis.
The lawsuit was filed by a coalition of groups including Disability Rights Advocates, Disability Rights North Carolina, the North Carolina Council of the Blind, the Governor Morehead School Alumni Association, Inc., and several North Carolina voters with disabilities, including Jo Taliaferro, Kenneth Durden, Kendall Gibbs, and Dr. Ricky Scott.
The North Carolina Absentee Voting Program requires voters to fill out a paper ballot and return the ballot by mail, providing no alternatives to accommodate individuals with disabilities who are unable to independently and privately read and mark a paper ballot from home. These long-standing barriers to absentee voting are made more apparent as daily COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations increase across the state, and the Governor has issued several executive orders recognizing the value of social distancing to reduce the spread of the virus.
The State adjusted the Absentee Voting Program’s witness requirement in reaction to the pandemic but has yet to recognize the barriers imposed by the paper absentee voting procedure, nor the specific risks the pandemic poses for blind voters. Without legal action, North Carolina’s Absentee Voting Program will force individuals with disabilities to choose between their health and their right to vote privately and independently from home in November.
The plaintiff organizations have informed the North Carolina State Board of Elections about the inaccessibility of paper ballots, to no avail. North Carolina offers military and overseas voters the option to receive and return ballots electronically. Voters with disabilities could easily mark such a ballot electronically, increasing their privacy and independence in time for the November 2020 elections, but the Board of Elections has yet to offer this option to voters with disabilities.
North Carolina’s Absentee Voting program can be made accessible, as has been done in other states including Tennessee, Maryland, and West Virginia. Defendants are aware of the need for accessibility and the availability of accessible solutions and have failed to implement reasonable modifications to the program.
This lawsuit was filed in the Eastern District of North Carolina under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Rather than monetary damages, plaintiffs seek reform to the systems and practices that discriminate against voters with disabilities in time for the November 2020 elections.