Coalition of Disability Groups Demand Immediate Action to Ensure Accessible Ballot Return for 2024 Elections

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"Press Release: Vote-By-Mail. Coalition of Disability Groups Demand Immediate Action to Ensure Accessible Ballot Return for 2024 Elections" + vote-by-mail envelope and pen + logos for DRA, BGL, CCB, DRC & NFB
“Press Release: Vote-By-Mail. Coalition of Disability Groups Demand Immediate Action to Ensure Accessible Ballot Return for 2024 Elections” + vote-by-mail envelope and pen + logos for DRA, BGL, CCB, DRC & NFB

April 4, 2024Sacramento, CA—Today, a coalition of disability organizations and California voters with disabilities filed a motion for a preliminary injunction requiring the California Secretary of State to (SOS) to implement accessible electronic mechanisms for voters with print disabilities to return their vote-by-mail ballots privately and independently by the November election. This motion comes after the coalition filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Norther District of California on March 8,2024, against the SOS to challenge discrimination in the state’s vote-by-mail program. Read the motion for preliminary injunction.

California’s paper-based methods for returning vote-by-mail ballots impose significant and unlawful barriers for blind voters and others whose disabilities prevent them from independently reading, marking, or handling paper documents (collectively, voters with “print disabilities”), forcing them to rely on assistance from others and thus denying them their fundamental right to vote privately and independently. This lawsuit aims to ensure that California’s vote-by-mail program is fully accessible for Californians with print disabilities for the upcoming 2024 elections and all future elections. Plaintiffs do not seek money damages.

The lawsuit was filed by Disability Rights Advocates, Disability Rights California, and Brown, Goldstein & Levy on behalf of the California Council of the Blind, the National Federation of the Blind of California, and individual Plaintiffs Christopher Gray, Russell Rawlings, and Vita Zavoli. Read the complaint.

California voters with print disabilities, like other U.S. citizens across the country, are proud to exercise the duty and right to vote for their elected representatives and for or against policies that impact their lives. In recent elections, record numbers of California voters have cast their ballots by mail. As part of an effort to increase voting access, the ability to vote by mail is now enshrined as a permanent feature of the state’s electoral system. But while many voters have benefited from California’s vote-by-mail program, its continued reliance on paper-based ballot return mechanisms excludes and discriminates against people with print disabilities that make it difficult or impossible to read or handle print materials, including voters who are blind and voters who have limited manual dexterity from causes including cerebral palsy, stroke, and spinal cord injuries.

Although California voters with print disabilities may receive and mark their ballots electronically on their own devices, there is no option to return their ballots electronically: voters must print their ballot selections, place that printout in a government-issued paper ballot return envelope, sign and seal the envelope, and then arrange for the return of the paper ballot through one of three inaccessible paper-based means. These paper-based mechanisms force voters with print disabilities to rely on assistants without print disabilities to handle their marked ballot, thereby sacrificing the secrecy of their vote. In contrast, California’s overseas and military voters have the option to return their ballots electronically by fax. This request for a preliminary injunction asks that the SOS extend that option to voters with print disabilities for the upcoming election so that they may return their ballots accessibly by fax.

The California Secretary of State can make the vote-by-mail program accessible to voters with print disabilities but has yet to do so. The addition of a readily available electronic ballot-return option would remedy the problem, as it would allow voters with print disabilities to use their own devices not only to mark their ballots, but also to review and submit them. At least 12 other states already offer some form of electronic return for voters with disabilities.

“The ability to vote independently should be a guaranteed right for all voters,” said Christopher Gray, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “However, because California fails to employ a fully accessible system of voting, this is not a guarantee for blind voters and others with print disabilities like me who must forgo their independence and privacy when engaging in a fundamental part of the democratic process—voting.”

“Returning my ballot by e-fax will ensure I can vote independently from start to finish—as voters without disabilities in California are already able to do,” said Russell Rawlings, another plaintiff in the lawsuit.

“Through this preliminary injunction, I hope that people who are blind or low-vision are granted the ability to vote with confidence using their own assistive technology to mark and cast their ballot by e-fax,” said Gabriel Griffith, President of the California Council of the Blind.

“Blind people, like all other voters, are concerned about the integrity of our ballots and of the voting process,” said Tim Elder, president of the National Federation of the Blind of California. “Our votes are neither secret nor secure when we must rely on third parties to assist us with printed paper ballots. We simply seek a vote-by-mail solution that respects our right to vote privately and independently, and in so doing treats us equally rather than as second-class citizens.”

“The right to a secret ballot is a fundamental right that most Americans take for granted,” said Rosa Lee Bichell, a staff attorney with Disability Rights Advocates. “Unfortunately, California’s vote-by-mail procedures fail to respect that right for voters with print disabilities. Through this case, we hope to ensure that all California voters are granted equal access to a private and independent vote.”

“All registered active voters receive a ballot in the mail and can return it by mail, in a drop box, or at a voting location. However, voters with print disabilities cannot return their ballot without having to waive their sacred right to a secret vote. We receive complaints to our Voting Hotline from voters with print disabilities every major election asking why they are not able to return their ballot electronically, like their counterparts in other states can. We filed the complaint to end the discrimination resulting from what amounts to a requirement that voters with print disabilities waive their right to vote privately and independently in order use the popular Vote-by-Mail Program. In order to ensure that the November 5, 2024, Presidential General Election is more accessible to voters with print disabilities, we are seeking only the minimum level of accessible ballot return, by facsimile,” said Fred Nisen, Managing Attorney, Disability Rights California.

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Founded in 1982, Brown, Goldstein & Levy is a law firm based in Baltimore, Maryland, with an office in Washington, D.C. The firm is nationally recognized in a wide variety of practice areas, including complex civil and commercial litigation, civil rights, health care, family law, and criminal defense. Above all else, Brown, Goldstein & Levy is a client-centered law firm that brings decades of experience and passionate, effective advocacy to your fight for justice.

California Council of the Blind (CCB) is a grassroots membership organization operating throughout California. It is an affiliate of the American Council of the Blind, a national membership organization. CCB’s purpose is to increase the independence and equality for all Californians who are blind or low vision. Its mission is to increase the independence, security, equality of opportunity, and quality of life for all Californians who are blind and visually impaired. Its services include providing information and referrals, technical assistance, and advocacy.

Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) is a leading national nonprofit disability rights legal center. Its mission is to advance equal rights and opportunity for people with all types of disabilities nationwide. DRA has a long history of enforcing the rights of voters with disabilities, including their rights to accessible voting machines, polling places, and online voter registration. DRA has secured legal victories for accessible absentee voting in Indiana, New York, and North Carolina. Visit www.dralegal.org.

Disability Rights California (DRC) is the agency designated under federal law to protect and advocate for the rights of Californians with disabilities. The mission of DRC is to defend, advance, and strengthen the rights and opportunities of people with disabilities. For more information visit: https://www.disabilityrightsca.org.

The National Federation of the Blind of California (NFBCA) is a nonprofit volunteer membership organization operating throughout California. It is an affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind, a national organization that promotes equal opportunity for the blind by removing legal, economic, and societal barriers to full participation by blind people in employment, education, recreation, and all other aspects of community life. NFBCA’ mission is to protect and promote the civil rights of blind persons through public education and advocacy.

Contacts

Rosa Lee Bichell, DRA: rbichell@dralegal.org 510-529-3432

Melody Pomraning, DRC: melody.pomraning@disabilityrightsca.org 916-504-5938

Chris Danielsen, NFBCA: danielsen@nfb.org 410-659-9314, ext. 2330