BALTIMORE (AP) — A federal judge says he has heard enough evidence that disabled residents can’t take full advantage of absentee voting to press ahead with a lawsuit filed by the National Federation of the Blind against the state of Maryland.
U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett denied a request by a state attorney to rule Thursday on the lawsuit over voting rights for people with disabilities.
Bennett ruled that the case against the state of Maryland will go forward in an effort to determine whether the state should be required to implement an online ballot-marking system designed to protect the privacy of blind voters in November’s election.
Lawyers for the National Federation of the Blind rested their case against the state Thursday.
The organization contends Maryland is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, because it fails to safeguard the guaranteed right to privacy when voting.
The plaintiffs contend that blind voters currently can’t even be sure if another person will record their vote as they wish. They say the ballot-marking system assures them their intended vote had been recorded. They also say the ballot-marking system enables blind and disabled voters to vote privately and independently, without having to make their vote known to an elections judge or family members.
Bennett noted that Maryland allows anyone to vote by absentee ballot, regardless of the reason.
“And there has been sufficient evidence that has been offered to me thus far to note that individuals with disabilities represented by the plaintiffs cannot take advantage of that absentee voting and are essentially being excluded in that fashion,” Bennett said.
Bennett spoke after hearing testimony from a blind and deaf resident from Bowie, Maryland, who described the trouble she has experienced at polling places while trying to vote.
Janice Toothman cited problems with poll workers programming a non-visual key card correctly so she could vote independently and privately. Toothman said poll workers even asked if someone could vote for her.
“To me, anything has got to be better than the current system,” Toothman said.
The lawsuit is opposed by another group for the blind, the Maryland chapter of the American Council of the Blind. Attorneys for that group contend the online ballot system is not accessible and subject to fraud.
Cindy LaBon, the group’s president, testified that she supports a fully accessible ballot-marking tool for blind voters, but the one considered for use in Maryland isn’t good enough. LaBon testified she is concerned that if the current tool is implemented its shortcomings will be forgotten, and needed improvements won’t be made.
“It must be fully accessible,” LaBon said.
The case is being heard after the Maryland State Board of Elections failed to certify the tool. The vote was 3-1 in favor of certification, but a vote of 4-1 was needed to certify the new system.
Dan Friedman, an assistant attorney general representing the state, said the case centers on a law that requires the elections board to certify a new ballot system. He also said the state is not in conflict with the federal Americans with Disabilities law, because the plaintiffs would need to prove people with disabilities are being deprived of meaningful access to absentee voting. He said 99 percent of the state’s polling places are accessible to them.
Testimony is scheduled to continue Aug. 26. Bennett said he expects to issue his opinion that week.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)