Some people living with disabilities can’t fill out an absentee ballot without assistance, and disability-rights experts say that’s a serious issue for folks in North Carolina who are worried about the health risks of heading to the polls in a pandemic.
Virginia Knowlton Marcus, chief executive of Disability Rights North Carolina, said the state Board of Elections has not provided alternatives to accommodate individuals with disabilities who are unable to independently and privately read and mark a paper ballot from their home.
“The absentee ballots in North Carolina are inaccessible to many people with disabilities,” she said. “People who are blind, have visual impairments or manual-dexterity disabilities, meaning that they can’t write.”
This summer, advocacy groups filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, asking the state to make changes to its absentee-voting program to improve accessibility for voters with disabilities by the November election. The suit is pending.
Marcus said state officials could offer special absentee-voting options, including electronic voting.
“Folks who vote overseas, for example in the armed forces, can vote using an electronic technology that could simply be made available to voters with disabilities,” she said. “It’s safe and it works, and it’s been implemented in many other states.”
Even when people with disabilities show up at the polls, Marcus said, they often report instances of discrimination and a lack of voting machines equipped with modifications for visual or auditory impairments.
“It might include poll workers not knowing how to assist people with disabilities,” she said, “or believing that if they do need assistance, that they are ineligible to vote.”
Marcus said North Carolina residents with disabilities who plan to vote in person can receive a free PPE kit online, at SafeVoterNC.org.
According to researchers at Rutgers University, if people with disabilities voted at the same rate as those without disabilities who have the same demographic characteristics, there would be more than 2 million more voters.
The lawsuit is online at dralegal.org, and the Rutgers study is at rutgers.edu.