Lynn Merrill of Augusta, seen at her home Monday, is one of the four plaintiffs who have reached a settlement agreement with municipalities that ensures the state and municipalities provide an electronic absentee ballot to voters with print disabilities. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Lynn Merrill of Augusta wanted to vote in the July 2020 primary election, but she was torn.

Months into the coronavirus pandemic, the city of Augusta had consolidated in-person voting to a single location at the Augusta Civic Center. Because of a medical condition, Merrill felt she’d be comprising her health if she voted at the polls. But when Merrill, who is also blind, contacted Augusta City Hall, she found there was not an electronic opportunity for her to complete a private ballot and only a paper option.

“They said to invite two friends over and ask one to complete ballot and the other to sign a form stating it was not done under duress,” Merrill said in an interview. “I asked how that equated to a private ballot and they said, ‘Well, that’s how we do it in nursing homes.’ I did not feel safe going to the polls for the election, and I refused to give up my right to a private ballot by having someone else do it for me.”

Ultimately, she did not vote in the election for those reasons. Now, though, she and others involved in a court case that resulted in a new online absentee ballot system for voters with print disabilities have reached a settlement agreement. Voters with print disabilities from Winslow, Augusta, Bangor and Portland’s request for electronic absentee ballots ahead of the 2020 primary elections were denied, resulting in a lawsuit against the state and municipalities for not providing an electronic alternative for paper absentee ballots.

The settlement agreement, which is technically pending as the court has yet to act on a motion to dismiss, marks a step in voter rights and compliance with the American Disabilities Act. The agreement requires the state and municipalities to provide electronic absentee ballots to those with print disabilities.

“This is assuring our fundamental right to cast a private and independent ballot,” said Merrill, one of the four plaintiffs in the case. “This is monumental for people with print disabilities. The idea is it’s not only for people experiencing vision loss, but also for people with other print disabilities: Dyslexia, muscular dystrophy, a number of medical conditions.”

According to the agreement, “‘print disabilities'” are those that interfere with the effective reading, writing, or use of printed material. By way of example, this definition includes, but is not limited to, those persons who are blind or visually impaired, those with cognitive or learning disabilities, as well as those with a physical disability that interferes with holding and manipulating paper or a pen or pencil.

Cheryl Peabody, of Winslow; Nicholas Giudice, of Bangor and Pauline Lamontagne, of Portland, were the other plaintiffs, in addition to Merrill. They were represented by Kristin Aiello, managing attorney for Disability Rights Maine.

The four towns in the suit are required to pay $2,500 each as part of a Joint Stipulation of Dismissal with Prejudice, which was filed in U.S. District Court on Friday, according to court documents.

“Nobody wants to file a lawsuit to create systemic change, but we had to in this case to ensure our clients could vote equally, safely and effectively,” Aiello said in an interview. “The point of the settlement agreement is to bring a pretty major change to the state of Maine in the way the voting system is run.”

All settlement agreements are required to have an endpoint. The settlement agreement technically ends Nov. 30, 2024, but the state and municipalities have expressed their intent to remain in compliance in perpetuity, Aiello said.

The state will automatically create federal and state election ballots, but municipalities need to ensure compliance by contacting the state for the accessible ballots.

“This case brings the state into compliance with the most fundamental right, which is the right to vote,” Aiello said.

The Winslow Town Council already voted unanimously to authorize town officials to execute the settlement agreement at a meeting May 10. All the other towns have now paid. The lawsuit named the municipal clerks in Winslow, Portland, Augusta and Bangor.

The lawsuit came about at the pandemic’s outset when state officials encouraged voters to submit absentee ballots to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19. All Maine polling places provided an accessible voting machine for voters with disabilities, but paper ballots were the only option for those who requested absentee ballots.

The state allows voters to receive assistance in reading or marking absentee ballots, but the plaintiffs for the case argued that infringes on their ability to vote privately and independently. The suit also argued that getting assistance with a ballot violates COVID-19 physical distancing recommendations, and physically going to the polling place put voters at risk. Plaintiffs in the suit argued the state violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and Maine Human Rights Act.

A request to provide an accessible voting system for people with disabilities, including visual impairment, ahead of the Nov. 3, 2020, general election was granted as the state offered a new service for casting absentee ballots.

In a statement, Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows described the new system as “a historic step forward in expanding voter access.”

“Every Maine citizen including those with disabilities should have the freedom and ability to cast their vote without barriers,” Bellows said. “We are pleased that this lawsuit has been resolved and look forward to continuing to spread the word about the new accessible absentee ballot option that we began to offer for the November 2020 election.”

The lawsuit’s plaintiffs helped test and launch the new voter system. The case remained active through last year’s election, but all parties involved agreed to temporarily hold filing deadlines on the suit to see how the system worked. Maine joined New York, Michigan, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and recently Virginia as the only states offering online absentee voting for those with disabilities.

As part of the agreement, the United States District Court for the District of Maine retains jurisdiction over the matter should any issues arise.

“I am most appreciative that we were able to come to a settlement and that the secretary of state and municipalities recognized that this fundamental right was not being recognized for people with print disabilities,” Merrill said. “I am proud to be a leader in this, and hopefully this is something where other states will look to Maine as setting the example.”

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