Big Win for Voter Accessibility
Judge Rules North Carolina Absentee Voting Must Be Accessible for November Election
September 25, 2020 – Raleigh, NC – Last night, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina granted a motion for preliminary injunction against the North Carolina State Board of Elections (“NCSBOE”), ordering them to make their Absentee Voting Program accessible to voters with disabilities by the November election. This ruling affirms that all North Carolinians deserve to vote privately and independently from home, especially during the COVID-19 crisis. Click here to read the order granting the preliminary injunction.
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.
Finding the NCSCBOE in violation of Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, Chief District Judge Terrence Boyle’s ruling orders the NCSBOE to allow voters with vision disabilities to opt into the already accessible electronic platform used by North Carolina’s military and overseas voters. This includes accessible electronic means for requesting, receiving, marking, and returning absentee ballots.
“It is a proud day for all of North Carolina now that blind and visually impaired people have the right to vote electronically and independently,” said Helen Jo Taliaferro, one of the plaintiffs. “I have a little more spring in my step knowing that people who are blind can receive, fill out, and return a ballot online without assistance.”
”There are still details to be worked out, but it’s clear that with this order, North Carolina has made a huge step in advancing the rights of its citizens with disabilities,” said Kendall Gibbs, one of the plaintiffs.
“This is a great victory for democracy and for persons who are blind or visually impaired”, said Dr. Ricky Scott, one of the plaintiffs. “For democracy to be fully inclusive, all voters must have an independent and secret ballot, and I am proud to be involved in making sure that right is protected for blind and visually impaired voters in North Carolina like myself.”
“The right to a private and independent ballot for all voters regardless of disability has finally been acknowledged in North Carolina,” said Fred McEachern, President of the Governor Morehead Alumni Association.
“The Court recognized that the promises of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act grant blind and visually-impaired North Carolinians the same right of access to the polls as our sighted peers,” said Christopher Bell, President of the North Carolina Council of the Blind. “This is a tremendous victory.”
“When the pandemic hit, blind voters found themselves excluded from the absentee voting process by paper ballots they could not read or mark by themselves, and which required them to put all of their trust and confidence in a sighted person to vote,” said Holly Stiles, an attorney at Disability Rights North Carolina. “Judge Boyle’s decision is a recognition that blind voters have the same right to privacy and independence casting their absentee ballot as any other voter; our democratic system only works when each citizen is equal in the eyes of the law in the voting booth.”
“In a state with a history of systemic voter disenfranchisement, this order is a huge step in the fight to break down barriers to voting for people with disabilities,” said Rosa Lee Bichell, an attorney at Disability Rights Advocates. “North Carolina voters with vision disabilities may finally exercise their right to vote independently, privately, and safely from home during an historic election.”
Disability Rights Advocates and Disability Rights North Carolina are coordinating implementation with NCSBOE. The preliminary injunction only applies to the upcoming November election. Plaintiffs will continue their pursuit for a fully accessible absentee ballot for all subsequent elections.
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.