Disability groups demand immediate action to make NC’s absentee voting accessible for November 2020

August 13, 2020 – Raleigh, NC – Last night, disability organizations filed an application for a preliminary injunction in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. The motion seeks a court order requiring the North Carolina State Board of Elections (“NCSBOE”) to make their Absentee Voting Program accessible to voters with disabilities by the November election. All North Carolinians deserve to vote privately and independently from home, especially during the COVID-19 crisis. Click here to read the motion and the Memo of Law in support of the motion.

The threat of COVID-19 brought the existing discrimination against voters with disabilities caused by the inaccessibility of the print-based Absentee Voting Program to the forefront, highlighted in the systemic lawsuit filed July 27, 2020, the day after the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 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.

The 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 already adjusted the Absentee Voting Program’s witness requirement in reaction to the pandemic, and North Carolina voters have submitted record numbers of absentee ballot requests in recognition of the dangers of in-person voting. However, the state has yet to recognize the barriers imposed by the paper absentee voting procedure for blind voters. Without legal action, North Carolina’s Absentee Voting Program will force individuals with disabilities who are concerned for their health to forfeit their right to vote privately and independently in order to vote from home in November, a choice that is not required of voters without disabilities.

North Carolina’s Absentee Voting program can be made accessible, as has been done in other states including Tennessee, Maryland and West Virginia. 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, reducing their risk for infection by COVID-19 while also increasing their privacy and independence in time for the November 2020 elections. The Board of Elections has yet to offer this option to voters with disabilities. Defendants are aware of the need for accessibility and the availability of accessible solutions and have failed to implement reasonable modifications to the program despite the risks of voting in person under COVID-19.

“Under the current absentee voting system, North Carolina assumes that I need and am comfortable with relying on someone else to complete my ballot,” said Helen Jo Taliaferro, one of the plaintiffs. “This is wrong. I live independently, and I have the right to vote privately and independently. The current paper ballot deprives me of that right, one of the most fundamental rights upon which our democracy is built.”

“North Carolina has always needed a form of accessible absentee voting. The current pandemic has emphasized this urgency” said Kendall Gibbs, one of the plaintiffs. “I will no longer stand the dehumanizing requirement of giving up my privacy and independence to vote absentee.”

“North Carolina should provide the blindness community the full and equal access to an absentee ballot that the ADA and justice demand, without further delay or litigation,” said Chris Bell, President of the North Carolina Council of the Blind.

“More blind voters will choose to cast an absentee ballot for the November 2020 election than in previous years, just like many other North Carolinians” said Virginia Knowlton Marcus, CEO of Disability Rights NC. “Federal law has required accessible absentee ballots and related communications in federally-funded elections since the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and for all elections since the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Blind voters will no longer tolerate this violation of their rights and are demanding equal access to the Absentee Voting Program, including the right to cast a private, independent ballot.”

“In every election, voters with disabilities have the same right as all other voters to vote privately and independently via absentee ballot,” said Rosa Lee Bichell, an attorney with Disability Rights Advocate. “Now more than ever, North Carolina must provide accessible absentee voting for the November 2020 election and beyond.”
If the preliminary injunction is granted, the NCSCBOE would be required to provide accessible means for requesting, receiving, marking, and returning absentee ballots for the November 3, 2020 General Election and beyond.