July 27, 2020 – Raleigh, NC – Today, disability organizations filed a lawsuit against the North Carolina State Board of Elections (“NCSBOE”) for excluding North Carolinians with disabilities from their Absentee Voting program.
The lawsuit charges the state agency with discrimination against voters who are unable to independently and privately mark a paper ballot due to vision disabilities. All North Carolinians deserve to vote safely and independently, especially during the COVID-19 crisis.
The lawsuit was filed 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, including Jo Taliaferro, Kenneth Durden, Kendall Gibbs, and Dr. Ricky Scott.
The North Carolina Absentee Voting Program requires voters to fill out a paper ballot and return the ballot by mail, providing no alternatives to accommodate individuals with disabilities who are unable to independently and privately read and mark a paper ballot from home. These 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 adjusted the Absentee Voting Program’s witness requirement in reaction to the pandemic but has yet to recognize the barriers imposed by the paper absentee voting procedure, nor the specific risks the pandemic poses for blind voters. Without legal action, North Carolina’s Absentee Voting Program will force individuals with disabilities to choose between their health and their right to vote privately and independently from home in November.
The plaintiff organizations have informed the North Carolina State Board of Elections about the inaccessibility of paper ballots, to no avail. 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, increasing their privacy and independence in time for the November 2020 elections, but the Board of Elections has yet to offer this option to voters with disabilities.
North Carolina’s Absentee Voting program can be made accessible, as has been done in other states including Maryland and West Virginia. Defendants are aware of the need for accessibility and the availability of accessible solutions and have failed to implement reasonable modifications to the program.
Dr. Ricky Scott, one of the plaintiffs, said, “Persons who are blind or vision impaired have the same right to vote privately as every other citizen in our state. We each have a right to a private, independent, and secret ballot. Yet, here we are 30 years after the passage of the ADA and we are still forced to go to court to exercise these basic rights.”
“Unfortunately, North Carolina voters are all too familiar with politically and racially motivated voter suppression efforts,” said Virginia Knowlton Marcus, CEO of Disability Rights NC. “Yet many North Carolinians are unaware that our state’s Absentee Voting Program has been denying the right of people with disabilities to a private, independent vote since its inception. Blind voters and voters unable to hold a pen cannot review and mark a paper ballot without assistance. We are bringing this lawsuit, 30 years after the ADA was enacted, to ensure that voters with disabilities who are unable, or choose not to, visit the polls – especially in light of the ongoing pandemic – have equal access to the voting process.”
“It is sadly ironic that the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act has come and gone and yet the blindness community still lacks equal access to North Carolina’s absentee voting program. With the filing of this lawsuit, the North Carolina Council of the Blind is taking the first step towards enabling our community to vote privately and independently from home just as our fellow citizens can do,” said Chris Bell, President of the North Carolina Council of the Blind.
“The right to a secret ballot is a fundamental right that most Americans take for granted,” said Rosa Lee Bichell, an attorney with Disability Rights Advocates. “Unfortunately, North Carolina has failed to respect that right for voters with certain disabilities. Through this case, we hope to ensure that all North Carolina voters are granted equal access to a private and independent vote.”
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 in time for the November 2020 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 http://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 http://www.disabilityrightsnc.org.
Disability Rights Advocates: Rosie Bichell
Disability Rights North Carolina: Holly Stiles