One in a frequent series of stories examining Maine’s voting system.

Maine has a long tradition of high voter turnout and is frequently among the top five states for voter participation in federal and state elections.

That’s due in no small part to the commitment of older or disabled Mainers, who make up nearly 20 percent of the voting population of 1.06 million people, says Kristin Aiello of Disability Rights Maine, an advocacy group.

These voters are facing new challenges to casting their ballots for the Nov. 3 election, and state and local election officials are taking steps to ensure access to voting for older or disabled voters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A combination of state and federal laws, including the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the Help America Vote Act, require that the rights of disabled voters be protected.

Here’s what Maine voters who may have trouble accessing their polling place or filling out a ballot need to know:

How will I be able to vote if I live in a long-term care facility?

The state normally requires town clerks to come into your facility to provide for in-person voting. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in an effort to prevent an outbreak at these facilities, Gov. Janet Mills has waived that requirement. Instead, you will have to request an absentee ballot in order to vote.

To help with this process, the Maine secretary of state has asked town clerks to provide absentee ballot applications to all long-term care facilities. Staff at your facility will give you the application and, once you’ve completed it, return the application to the clerk. This can be achieved in several ways, including scanning and emailing the applications back, sending them by fax or returning them by mail or in person.

Clerks will then return absentee ballots in a sealed envelope to your facility for distribution by the staff. After you fill out your ballot and put it in the return envelope, it will be collected by the clerk’s office or returned to them by facility staff. Nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have a duty under federal law to protect and facilitate the rights of their residents, including your right to vote.

Lori Parham, state director for AARP Maine, said her organization has been working with clerks, the Secretary of State’s Office, facility residents, families and staff to get the word out about the changes that are taking place during the pandemic. She said AARP is encouraging the facilities to be proactive with voting access, especially if they have not yet heard from their municipal clerks.

“They need to be acting sooner, rather than later,” Parham said. “Family members can also be strong advocates for their loved ones.”

If I can’t physically hold a pen to mark a ballot, how do I vote?

You can be assisted in marking your ballot, but there is a specific process that must be followed, including having a witness who will attest that your voting choices were not influenced by the assistant. The witness must also ensure that the ballot is unmarked at the start of the voting process.

If you are unable to sign the return envelope for your absentee ballot, you can have the envelope signed by an assistant, but it must be signed in one of two specific formats. For example, “Jane Doe assistant on behalf of voter John Smith” or “John Smith voter signed by Jane Doe assistant.”

If  you have physical dexterity limitations, you can also request and complete an online absentee ballot. The Secretary of State’s Office, working with Disability Rights Maine and other partners, rolled out a new system for this last week.

What if I have a visual impairment and can’t read my ballot?

If you have a visual impairment,  you are also eligible to have assistance, as described above, or you can use the new online voting system introduced by the secretary of state. The 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 individual from independently marking a paper ballot,” Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said.

Can I still vote in Maine if I’ve been placed in legal guardianship?

Yes. People under legal guardianship in Maine may retain the right to vote. Although the Maine Constitution states that those who are placed in legal guardianship may not register or vote, this has been overturned in a decision by federal Judge George Z. Singal of the United States District Court for the District of Maine.

I have some mobility issues but would still like to vote in person. Can I do that?

Yes, state and federal law requires all polling places to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Maine’s Equal Rights Act also requires that accommodation be made for voters in the polling place.

These laws include a variety of requirements that are also in place for all public buildings, including available handicapped-accessible parking, ramps for those who use wheelchairs and other mobility aids, and specialized voting machines that allow you to mark your ballot using a touchscreen or a key pad and an audio interface.

These devices do not retain or track how your ballot was marked and are certified by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

However, many of Maine’s voting locations are problematic.

“Old grange halls, stairs, and lack of accessible parking all pose barriers for access in Maine,” says Aiello, the attorney with Disability Rights Maine. “Voting inside a polling place is a quintessential American tradition, a place where you can see community members, sign petitions, and take part in a uniquely community event. In many ways, it’s a celebration of democracy. Yet there are still locations in Maine that lack that physical access, which leaves people with disabilities sidelined and unseen.”

Where can I get more information?

A new guide on voting for residents of long-term care facilities was published last week in a collaborative effort by AARP Maine, Disability Rights Maine and the Maine Long-term Care Ombudsman Program. The nine-page guide is meant to help you secure your voting rights and includes information to help you, family members and facility staff.

The Maine Secretary of State’s Office also provides information about accessible voting on its website.

Do you have a question about Maine’s election system or how your vote will be counted? Send it to [email protected]

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