Galvin settles lawsuit over voting access for people with disabilities
Some voters will be able to cast ballots via email
SECRETARY OF STATE William Galvin has settled a lawsuit filed by disability rights groups in a way that will make it easier for voters with disabilities to request an electronic ballot so they can vote at home on their computer in the November election.
“I am very pleased that we were able to reach a friendly agreement with these advocates to ensure that voters with disabilities will be able to cast their ballots independently from home, in the same way they are able to cast their ballots independently at their polling places,” Galvin said in a statement.
Tatum Prichard, the litigation director at the Disability Law Center, which filed the suit, hailed the settlement. “This is a significant step forward in making sure people can vote safely from their homes like all other voters and without the assistance of other people,” Prichard said.
The legislation passed this summer that authorized mail-in voting for the 2020 elections due to the coronavirus pandemic also required the state to provide accommodations to voters with disabilities. One of these accommodations is access to an electronic ballot.
Voters with these types of disabilities can vote at a polling place using a type of assistive voting machine, but the coronavirus pandemic has led to a reluctance to vote in person for people with safety concerns.
Before the September 1 state primary, the Disability Law Center sued Galvin on behalf of the Bay State Council of the Blind, the Boston Center for Independent Living, and six individual plaintiffs, arguing that no information about this accommodation had been made public. By the time the sides reached an agreement, voters had only three days to request an electronic ballot.
On October 2, the groups filed a second lawsuit in US District Court arguing the Galvin still had not established a sufficient voting system for people who want to vote remotely due to COVID-19 but cannot use a print ballot. “Remote voting options that allow voters to complete their ballots from the safety of home, like absentee voting and vote by mail, generally involve completion of a paper ballot, which is simply inaccessible to voters with print disabilities,” they wrote in their complaint.
Prichard told CommonWealth in September that by the time the settlement was reached in the initial lawsuit, only 14 people were granted access to an electronic ballot. Another eight applied but their application was deemed incomplete. According to the October lawsuit, three of the 14 people granted access to the program were unable to successfully complete their ballots.
The groups argued that the system Galvin put in place to make early voting accessible during the primary was “replete with barriers to accessibility,” and required disabled voters to get help from a third party in order to cast their ballots, “thereby denying them the opportunity to exercise their right to vote privately and independently from home like non-disabled Massachusetts voters.” For example, there is no accessible way for a voter to fill out a required affirmation – which for most voters involves signing a ballot envelope. Voters using an electronic ballot must go through multiple steps, including printing the ballot, putting it into two envelopes, signing one of the envelopes and mailing it in.
The groups asked Galvin to let voters cast their ballots by email.
With early voting already underway, a federal judge on Tuesday signed off on an agreement reached by the disability rights groups and Galvin, which lays out a process for a voter to vote via electronic ballot.
Pritchard said the electronic submission and the ability for a voter to sign their name electronically will make it easier for people with certain types of disabilities to cast their ballots.
The deadlines for requesting and submitting electronic ballots are the same as for other ballots – they must be requested by October 28 and submitted or postmarked by the close of polls on Election Day.Pritchard said there are “thousands” of people in Massachusetts who may be eligible to vote using electronic ballots due to a disability, although given the newness of the technology, it is unclear how many will actually take advantage of it.
Normally, Pritchard noted, going to the polls and using the assistive technology there is the easiest way for a voter to cast their ballot. “These are the first two elections really that remote voting is the standard option people are having to use, and people are having to learn a whole new way of doing things,” Pritchard said.