Court: Maryland must implement online ballot marking tool

laptop on a table next to cup and phone. Screen shows several check boxes, some with red checks and some empty.

a mouse and a check box
Voting Accessibility Victory

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled unanimously February 9 [PDF] to uphold a lower court ruling, directing the state of Maryland to ensure its system for voting via absentee ballot is accessible to people with visual disabilities, by allowing the use of an online ballot marking tool.

“The district court found, after a three-day bench trial, that the tool is reasonably secure, safeguards disabled voters’ privacy, and (in earlier versions at least) has been used in actual elections without apparent incident,” the Court wrote. “We do not think these findings are clearly erroneous and defendants have not provided any substantial reasons that they should be called into question.”

In 2012, voters were provided, for the first time, the opportunity to download and electronically fill-out absentee ballots. The system, however, was incompatible with text-to-Braille converters, magnifiers, and other tools that provide “meaningful access” to people with visual disabilities, as required under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The Maryland General Assembly passed legislation in 2013 directing the state Board of Elections to remedy these accessibility concerns. Ensuing delays prompted the National Federation of the Blind, represented by Brown Goldstein & Levy, to sue the state in federal court.

The U.S. District Court for the District Court of Maryland ruled on the NFB’s behalf in September 2014, though it was too late for use in that year’s midterm elections.

A three-judge panel at the Fourth Circuit reviewed the District Court’s decision, finding little reason to disturb its findings. Specifically, the Fourth Circuit, pointing to the lack of reported faults with the system in the 2012 election, agreed that the tool represents a “reasonable accommodation under the ADA and Section 504, and would not “fundamentally alter” the state’s election system.

“The right to vote is a fundamental one, and equal access to this right cannot and must not be denied to blind Americans,” NFB President Mark Riccobono said in a news release. “Today’s ruling affirms that blind voters must have equal access to all methods of voting that are generally available to other voters, and that equal access means the ability to mark and cast our ballots privately and independently, without being forced to rely on assistance from others.”

Eleven disability rights groups, included the Maryland Disability Law Center, signed onto an amicus brief [PDF] drafted by the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center on the NFB’s behalf. The Department of Justice also submitted a separate supporting amicus brief [PDF].

The Maryland Disability Law Center and Disability Rights Washington, the publisher of Rooted in Rights, are the designated protection and advocacy agencies in Maryland and Washington, respectively, and are members of the National Disability Rights Network.