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Introduction

State and local governments face challenges in ensuring that election content is accessible to voters with disabilities.

Some states have restrictive laws that limit the rights of voters with disabilities. In such cases, the only recourse left for disability advocates and disabled voters are the courts.

A coalition of groups in North Carolina including Disability Rights North Carolina and many others are suing the state over restricted access to voting for disabled voters.

Source: The Disability Rights North Carolina

North Carolina Advocates to make voting accessible to people with disabilities

As North Carolina gears up for the November election, advocates are working to make sure voting is accessible for everyone.

Casting a ballot is supposed to be a smooth, easy process. However, for some, it can be quite the opposite.

Disability Rights North Carolina is working to change that issue. The organization won a lawsuit in July 2022, challenging a North Carolina law that only allows a guardian or family member to help someone fill out an absentee ballot.

Source: Disability Rights North Carolina

Issues faced by North Carolina Voters with Disabilities during Voting

According to the Disability Rights North Carolina, the top five issues facing people with disabilities as they vote are:

  • Voters are unable to use the assistive technology that is present because poll workers either do not know how to work it or haven’t turned it on and prepared it for use.
  • Poll workers believe that a voter with disabilities is being exploited and assume because of the severity of their disability they do not have the capacity to vote.
  • Poll workers do not allow a person to vote based on assumptions about their disability.
  • Poll workers ask people with disabilities to prove they have the capacity to vote, including asking them to demonstrate they can read and write.

Source: North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities

Disability Groups demand North Carolina’s immediate action to make absentee voting accessible for the elections in November 2020

On August 13, 2020, major disability advocacy groups 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 2020 election.

They argued that all North Carolinians deserve to vote privately and independently from home.

The pandemic brought into sharp focus the discrimination against voters with disabilities due to inaccessible print-based Absentee Voting Program.

North Carolina’s Absentee Voting program can be made accessible, as has been done in other states including Tennessee, Maryland and West Virginia.

Michigan, after being presented with a similar lawsuit, expanded their UOCAVA voting system to people with disabilities in the state.

Maryland, New Hampshire, Oregon and Wisconsin have online ballot delivery options, where voters can mark their ballots on their computers, then print them off and deliver them as they would a standard ballot, the litigation describes. West Virginia allows voters to mark and return their ballots online.

North Carolina offers military and overseas voters the option to receive and return ballots electronically, called the UOCAVA voting process.

Voters with disabilities could easily mark such a ballot electronically, but the Board of Elections has yet to offer this option to voters with disabilities. To expand that access to voters, it would require a court’s order or action by the legislature.

Source: Disability Rights Advocates Blog

North Carolina won a major lawsuit to make voting more accessible to disabled voters

Under Section 208 of the federal Voting Rights Act, voters with disabilities who need help voting are entitled to the assistant of the voter’s choosing, with very limited exceptions for the voter’s employer or union.

North Carolina laws limit who could provide assistance to a voter with a disability.

Previously, a voter with a disability who needed assistance with voting would have to rely on a legal guardian or close family member for help with most of the voting process.

It did not matter whether that was the voter’s preference or whether such a person was readily available.

Voters who live in facilities like nursing homes and adult care homes could not get assistance from the people who care for them every day and might be the only source of help. Some of the laws made it a felony to give or receive prohibited assistance.

Disability Rights North Carolina brought a lawsuit challenging the North Carolina laws as violating Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act.

Federal Judge Rules in favour of Voting Rights for Disabled Voters

The Judge ruled that North Carolina’s restrictions are contrary to Section 208 and are pre-empted by federal law.

In the ruling, Judge Boyle said North Carolina cannot enforce these restrictions for disabled voters.  As a result, voters with disabilities who need assistance with voting may request and receive assistance from anyone they choose, except for their employer or union.

The judge’s ruling applies to all parts of the voting process, from requesting the absentee ballot to completing the ballot, and returning the ballot to the local board of elections.

Disability Rights NC is consulting with the State Board of Elections on the implementation of the ruling. The Board is expected to issue guidance this week.

Source: Disability Rights North Carolina

What the ruling means for voters with disabilities?

As a result, voters with disabilities who need assistance with voting may request and receive assistance from anyone they choose. The judge’s ruling applies to all parts of the voting process, from requesting the absentee ballot to completing the ballot, and returning the ballot to the local board of elections.

Source: Disability Rights North Carolina

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Conclusion

In every election, voters with disabilities have the same right as all other voters to vote privately and independently. North Carolina must provide the voters with disabilities the same and equal access to vote that the ADA and justice demand, without further delay or litigation.

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