Lawsuit: Absentee Ballots in Michigan Aren't Accessible, Putting Blind Voters at Risk, Stripping Their Rights

April 28, 2020

Voters in Michigan are encouraged to stay home and vote via absentee ballots due to COVID-19. For voters who are blind or have other disabilities that make it difficult to read or write, no accessible options for absentee voting are available, denying voters with disabilities the right to vote privately and independently, according to a lawsuit filed on April 25, 2020.

These conditions constitute violations of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Article III of the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act.

The absentee paper ballots, which are currently the only option, are not accessible to those who can't independently read and write print materials. For impacted individuals, they would have to seek assistance to vote, which takes away their abilities to vote privately and maintain safe social distancing, says the suit.

"Blind individuals cannot read the printed text that appears on the absentee ballot. Thus, to vote absentee, Plaintiffs and other blind and print-disabled Michigan voters must rely on the assistance of another person to read and mark their paper absentee ballots for them. Such assistance strips Plaintiffs of the secrecy of their ballots," says one of the allegations in the suit.

Additionally, "The paper absentee ballot also forces those who are blind to seek in-person assistance to complete their absentee ballot. Individuals who live alone would be forced to violate the Governor’s Executive Order requiring Michigan citizens to stay home, and would be contrary to state and federal policy encouraging, and in many instances requiring, social distancing to stem the spread of the global pandemic."

Plaintiffs Michael Powell and Fred Wurtzell, "individually and on behalf of those similarly situated," have filed a suit against Michigan, with Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Director of Elections Jonathan Brater named as defendants in Case No. 20-11023.

"Occasionally, the seriousness of accessibility is dismissed. Some people think of it as nice to have or sometimes even as a show of generosity toward people who are blind or have other disabilities," said Mark Shapiro, President of the Bureau of Internet Accessibility.

"In this case," he continued, "the lack of accessibility requires citizens who are blind to choose between missing the opportunity to exercise a cherished civil duty and putting their health at risk. Unfortunately, it takes lawsuits like this one to prove to the public that access is a civil right."

There are options for leveraging digital accessibility in voting. For example, websites and tools that are secure and fully accessible with assistive technology like screen readers can be built and used to allow individuals to cast a vote. Such systems would even allow voters to print and return their completed ballots, if required.

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