Federal Judge Orders North Carolina To Provide Accessible Absentee Voting

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An envelope being held up "Absent Voter Ballot Secrecy Envelope" with instructions
Image: Envelope being held up “Absent Voter Ballot Secrecy Envelope” with instructions (via Flickr)

 

June 17, 2021Raleigh, NC – On June 15, 2021, Judge Terrence W. Boyle of the federal District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina ordered the North Carolina Board of Elections to take immediate steps to ensure that blind voters will have equal access to the 2021 municipal elections and all subsequent elections. Prior to Judge Boyle’s ruling, the North Carolina Absentee Voting Program required voters to fill out a paper ballot and return the ballot by mail, providing no alternatives to accommodate individuals with vision disabilities who are unable to independently and privately read and mark a paper ballot. Judge Boyle found that North Carolina denies blind voters the opportunity to cast an absentee ballot privately and independently in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

In the 2020 General Election, North Carolina offered military and overseas voters the option to receive and return absentee ballots using an accessible online voting system operated by nationally-known firm Democracy Live but refused to let voters with disabilities cast their absentee ballots using the same system. Plaintiffs successfully obtained a court order granting blind voters access to the Democracy Live system in time for blind voters to cast a private and independent absentee ballot for the first time in North Carolina in the 2020 General Election. Judge Boyle’s ruling of Tuesday makes the access blind voters enjoyed in the 2020 elections permanent.

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.

 “Voters with disabilities have long been excluded from political spaces,” said Helen Jo Taliaferro, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. “Now, this victory ensures that our voices are heard in a way that elevates each of our right to vote privately and independently.”

“This is a great victory to ensure equal access to the ballot,” said Dr. Ricky Scott, another plaintiff. “In recognizing our right to vote by absentee privately and independently, we are finally granted full participation in the voting process rather than being treated like second class citizens.”

“This is an incredible victory for the blindness community, who have long sought to vote privately and independently,” said Christopher Bell, President of the NCCB. “Now we finally can.”

“It is a wonderful time for the blind and visually impaired community of North Carolina to have accessible absentee voting,” said Fred McEachern, President of the GMSAAI. “It has been a long time coming and now we have it.”

“We celebrate this victory with disabled voters. It was intolerable, more than 30 years after the passage of the ADA, to have failed to implement disability rights laws guaranteeing people with disabilities the same access to the ballot as nondisabled voters,” said Virginia Knowlton Marcus, CEO of Disability Rights NC. “The power of the disability vote cannot be ignored.” 

“We are delighted that Judge Boyle recognized the right of voters with print disabilities to choose how to vote without having to sacrifice their privacy and independence, just like nondisabled voters can,” said Rosa Lee Bichell of Disability Rights Advocates. “This order is a move towards a more inclusive and equitable democratic system in North Carolina.”

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.

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About Disability Rights Advocates (DRA): Disability Rights Advocates 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. Visit www.dralegal.org.

About Disability Rights North Carolina (DRNC): Disability Rights North Carolina (DRNC) is the federally mandated protection and advocacy agency for the State of North Carolina, dedicated to advancing the rights of all people with disabilities, of all ages, statewide. DRNC is an independent, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and a member of the National Disability Rights Network. Learn more about Disability Rights North Carolina at www.disabilityrightsnc.org.

Contacts

Disability Rights Advocates: Rosie Bichell

rbichell@dralegal.org

510-529-3432

Disability Rights North Carolina: Holly Stiles

holly.stiles@disabilityrightsnc.org

919-856-2195