A group of voters has sued the state and several municipalities, arguing that the state violated federal law by not providing an electronic alternative to paper ballots for people who are visually impaired.

State officials encouraged voters to use absentee ballots during this week’s primary to minimize the risk of people gathering at polling places and spreading COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Every polling place in Maine has an accessible voting machine for people with disabilities, but paper ballots are the only option for most people who want to vote absentee.

A woman sorts absentee ballots before election day at Portland City Hall. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Four voters from different Maine communities filed the lawsuit in federal court in Bangor on Tuesday. Disability Rights Maine is representing the plaintiffs, each of whom requested an electronic ballot to vote absentee but were denied.

The suit names Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap and municipal clerks in Portland, Augusta, Bangor and Winslow.

While the state allows a voter to receive assistance in reading or marking their absentee ballots, the plaintiffs argue that option compromises their ability to vote independently and privately.

They also say it forces voters with disabilities to break social distancing guidelines if they have to invite someone into their homes to help them. The complaint says their only way to vote without the assistance of another person is to use the accessible machines at a polling place, which they say would put them at risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to order the state to provide an accessible absentee voting system for people who are visually impaired or who have other disabilities in time for the Nov. 3 general election.

“Mainers have one option to limit their exposure to the polls: an absentee ballot,” said Kristin Aiello, a senior attorney at Disability Rights Maine. “But the absentee ballot program for Maine residents excludes blind people and others with print disabilities. A person should not have to sacrifice their privacy and health just to vote.”

A spokeswoman for the Maine Secretary of State’s Office said she could not comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit cites examples of other states that have different options for visually impaired voters, including electronic absentee ballots. Such ballots can be filled out and submitted using a computer.

For its June primary, New York allowed voters to request and receive their ballots by email, mark the ballots on their computers, then print and return them by mail. Earlier this month, Delaware used an accessible voting system for overseas and military voters, as well as voters with disabilities. That system allowed for ballots to be delivered electronically and returned by mail, fax or email. Michigan also is working to acquire an accessible absentee ballot system in time for an August election.

The complaint also says Maine allows military voters and overseas residents to receive and return their ballots in PDF format via email. That process could help people with disabilities, as well, but is not available to them, the lawsuit says.

The plaintiffs argue that the state is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Maine Human Rights Act by not offering that same option or another accessible voting system to residents with disabilities. Their complaint also notes that the state received emergency funding from the federal government to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during elections and suggests that money could have been used in part to address this problem.

“Using their screen reader software or screen magnification, Plaintiffs would be able to privately and independently vote with accessible, fillable PDF ballots provided to them electronically,” the complaint says. “Plaintiffs are unable to independently and privately vote with the paper absentee ballots currently in use in Maine.”

The plaintiffs are Lynn Merrill of Augusta, Nicholas Guidice of Bangor, Paula Lamontagne of Portland and Cheryl Peabody of Winslow. The complaint details their efforts to get accessible ballots from their local election officials. The voters declined a request to be interviewed for this story.

Merrill, who is an officer in the Maine chapter of the American Council of the Blind, uses a guide dog and assistive technology, like text-to-speech software on her computer and iPhone. The complaint also says she is an older adult with an underlying medical condition that puts her at increased risk if she contracts the virus.

So Merrill wrote to the city clerk in Augusta multiple times in June to request an absentee ballot for the primary in an electronic format, which she could fill out using the software on her computer. Roy, the clerk, told her she could have two trusted people help her complete the ballot. Another officer from the American Council of the Blind emailed a letter to the state to express concern about that option, but the complaint says no one ever responded.

The complaint does not say if Merrill voted in the primary.

“The plaintiffs made a simple request and there was a simple solution, such (as) one that is being utilized in states including New York, Michigan, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania,” said Aiello, the attorney at Disability Rights Maine. “But all they got was roadblocks. Enough is enough.”

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