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Accessible absentee ballot option for voters with print disabilities to launch Friday

The new service is part of an interim agreement reached between Maine Sec. of State and Disability Rights Maine.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A new online service will launch on Friday that will provide voters with disabilities an accessible option to vote via absentee ballot.

Following a lawsuit filed in July by plaintiffs Lynn Merrill, Nicholas Giudice, Pauline Lamontagne, Cheryl Peabody, and Disability Rights Maine, the Maine Secretary of State agreed to develop and implement an accessible absentee ballot system for qualified voters with disabilities.

The accessible absentee ballot was developed in coordination with the State’s online service provider, InforME, with input from advocates at Disability Rights Maine.

The new ballot option is intended for voters with print disabilities, which may include vision impairment or blindness, physical dexterity limitations, learning disabilities, or cognitive impairment, all of which prevent the individual from independently marking a paper ballot.

RELATED: Voting rights lawsuit filed against Maine Sec. of State

“We have been encouraging people to consider absentee voting if they are concerned about going to a polling place during this pandemic,” Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said, “and for voters with disabilities who wanted to vote absentee, only the mailed paper ballot was available – until now. This new service represents a significant milestone in our administration of elections in Maine, making independent absentee voting available to all Maine citizens.”

The lawsuit claimed individuals with disabilities have been denied the right to vote privately and independently by absentee ballot in the November 3 election and future elections, in violation of federal and state laws.

The lawsuit asked the State to make accommodations so that people who are visually impaired can cast a vote from home without having to have someone else fill the ballot out for them.

“No one should have to choose between their health in the pandemic and exercising the most fundamental and important right in a democracy—the right to vote,” lead counsel, Kristin Aiello of Disability Rights Maine, said. “We are pleased that the Secretary of State’s Office has taken steps to ensure that people with print disabilities will be able to vote privately, independently, and safely from their home for the November 3 general election.”

RELATED: Court rules in favor of Maine Sec. of State over extending absentee voting deadline

The terms of the agreement, which apply to the November 3 General Election, include the following:

  • A new application is being added to the state’s existing Absentee Ballot Request (ABR) Service that will enable Maine voters who self-certify that they have a disability that prevents them from completing a paper ballot independently to vote by electronic ballot. The application is accessible by standard screen reader text-to-speech software and enables a voter who is blind or visually impaired to navigate the application and independently complete the form fields.
  • The Secretary is designing a welcome page on the SOS website for the accessible ABR Service.  The welcome page for accessible absentee ballot users will contain tips for each screen reader, which will walk the user through each step of accessing the ballot.  The welcome page will also contain a sample absentee ballot so people can practice prior to voting with the real ballot using their own operating system. Once the voter’s application is approved, the voter will receive a secure log in and credentials to access the state ballot for the electoral districts in which they reside, as well as any local ballots.
  • The SOS will provide universally accessible pdf (UA/PDF) absentee ballots that voters with print disabilities will be able to download and review using a standard screen reader (JAWS, NVDA, or VoiceOver). Voters will be able to mark their choices independently and confidentially, and then submit the ballot via a secure delivery system using the secure log in credential provided through the ABR service. Voters can track the status of the absentee ballot at every stage of the process.
  • To assist voters to navigate the new system, the Secretary’s vendor has hired an expert in accessibility, Maria Delgado, formerly of American Printing House for the Blind, to troubleshoot any problems that occur when print-disabled voters are attempting to cast an absentee ballot. Delgado will work with each voter through the system if any problems should occur.  Information on how to contact her will be on the accessible ballot web page. 
  • People with print disabilities will be able to submit their ballot requests via the online ABR service and obtain their ballots to cast starting on October 2, 2020, which is the same date that other voters will begin to receive their paper-based absentee ballots.

To request an accessible absentee ballot, voters with print disabilities should visit the Absentee Ballot Request Page online or contact the Secretary of State, Division of Elections at: (207) 624-7650 or email cec.elections@maine.gov

In addition to the accessible absentee ballot, the State provides the Accessible Voting System ballot-marking device at every polling place on Election Day, which allows any voter to use a touchscreen or controller pad/audio to independently mark their ballot.