Maine voters who are unable to mark a paper ballot because of a cognitive, visual or physical impairment will be able to cast their absentee ballot online beginning Friday.

The new service is a collaborative effort between the Secretary of State’s Office, the state’s online service provider, InforME, and advocates at Disability Rights Maine.

In July, Disability Rights Maine sued the state and several municipalities in federal court on behalf of four blind or visually impaired Maine voters.

That case is still active but the parties involved have agreed to put the filing deadlines in the lawsuit on hold to see how the new system works in November, said Kristin Aiello, the lead attorney for Disability Rights Maine. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit helped test the new system.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said Thursday the new system is, in part, being rolled out because he and other health and election officials have been urging Mainers to cast absentee ballots if they are concerned about exposure to COVID-19 at the polling place.

The new system will make Maine one of only about five states that offer some form of online voting for people with disabilities, according to information from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Each state’s system for voting varies, so their systems for allowing the disabled to vote also vary. Dunlap said Michigan was the state that had a similar system to the one Maine was implementing, but the online ballots are handled at the county level instead of at the state level, as with Maine’s system.

“This new service represents a significant milestone in our administration of elections in Maine, making independent absentee voting available to all Maine citizens,” Dunlap said.

After wiping down a voting booth with a disinfectant wipe, election worker Dawn Hodsdon signals for the next voter in line in the Monmouth Academy gym during the July primary. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

The new online system 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 voter from independently marking a paper ballot.

“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,” Aiello said.

Maine voters also have access to a polling place system that allows them to mark their ballot independently using a touchscreen, a controller pad or audio inputs.

Dunlap said the new system was an adaptation of a system that is already used by Maine voters who are working or serving in the military overseas. The system will allow voters to have their ballot read to them and they would then be able to cast their ballot securely online.

He said the system would mainly be used by voters who are blind or otherwise visually impaired.

“For them voting at the polls meant risking public exposure to the coronavirus by taking public transportation, arranging to get a ride, violating the six-feet rule,” Aiello said. “You can imagine what it would be like to be blind or visually impaired and go into a public polling place and trying to vote, not knowing how close you were to other people, not knowing who’s been in the voting booth before you and whether or not it’s clean.”

She said her clients who were asking for an online system also have other underlying health concerns that may make them more vulnerable if they to contract the virus.

“Voting is really this constitutional, fundamental right,” said Nicholas Giudice, one of the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit against the state. “But it’s not just the right to vote, it’s the right to do it independently and privately.”

Giudice is also a University of Maine research scientist and the co-founder of the university’s VEMI Laboratory, where faculty and students use technology to innovate solutions to unmet challenges for humans.

Giudice said the partnership with the state, InforME and DRM represented good progress and real collaboration.

“People were very responsive … in correcting problems that arose. Rarely is it something that ends up perfectly, but this arrangement that we have now works and it allows anybody that has print disability to vote end to end, getting the ballot, filling it out and submitting it,” Giudice said. “That’s a big deal. It’s going to affect a lot of people in Maine.”

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