Court orders Maryland to use accessible absentee voting system

a red and blue flag, each with the word "vote"

The United States District Court for the District of Maryland issued a ruling September 4 requiring the Maryland Board of Elections to allow voters to fill out absentee ballots online in the upcoming primary election.

“The court today has protected the fundamental rights of voters with disabilities, including the rights to equal access and to a secret ballot, by ruling that we must be able to mark an absentee ballot privately and independently, rather than being forced to request assistance in doing so,” said Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind in a news release.

In 2012, the state, for the first time, allowed eligible voters to vote by filling out absentee ballots electronically before printing them. The system, however, was inaccessible to the blind.

Although few problems with the system were reported, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Improving Access to Voting Act the following year, requiring the approval of a five-member Board of Elections to certify the use of a new “online ballot marking tool” before it is used in a subsequent election.

During this time, the NFB, other disability advocates, and state officials worked to create a new, more accessible version of the online ballot marketing tool. Although the issue of the system’s certification was raised at multiple Board meetings, no vote was taken, prompting a lawsuit by the NFB in May 2014 arguing that the Board’s failure to adopt the system violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

The Board later voted on the system’s certification in June, but it failed to gather the four votes necessary for approval.

During a three-day hearing in front of the Court in August, the state argued the system could not reliably prevent fraud and assure voter’s privacy. The American Council of the Blind agreed with the state’s argument, and intervened on the state’s behalf.

In its ruling, the Court rejected these arguments, finding that without certification of the tool, people with visual disabilities would be denied meaningful access to absentee ballot voting in the upcoming election, in violation of the ADA. In addition, the Court found that the use of the new system constituted a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, and that its use did not fundamentally alter the state’s election system.

“In this case, it is clear that most voters may mark their absentee ballots without assistance. Plaintiffs should be afforded the same opportunity, but the State’s current voting program does not allow for it,” the Court stated. “Accordingly, Plaintiffs have established that they are denied meaningful access to Maryland’s voting program.”