Now, however, after the center and several other groups advocating for the blind filed a federal lawsuit, the Virginia Department of Elections has agreed to offer a new option.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton approved a consent decree between the state and blind voters who sued that will allow vision-impaired people to electronically receive mail-in ballots compatible with screen-reader assistive technology.
At polling places, such voters can request similar assistive technology that reads the ballot to them as they make selections. But at some places the equipment is not readily available, Miller said, and voters have to wait or decide to get help from a poll worker instead.
Now they won’t need to ask for assistance from anyone. And like seeing voters, they won’t have to leave home to fill out their ballots.
The agreement applies only to the Nov. 3 election.
“It has never been a private vote for people with print disabilities, not during the covid crisis or before the covid crisis,” Miller said. “They’ve always had to count on somebody else to assist them. So for the first time ever, people with a vision impairment are going to be able to vote privately.”
According to a 2016 estimate by the National Federation of the Blind, more than 178,000 Virginians have reported a visual disability.
Several of them, along with the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia and American Council of the Blind of Virginia, sued in July, alleging violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act. It is one of several lawsuits that advocates for the blind have filed nationwide, including in New York, Texas and North Carolina, as millions of people across the country look to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.
In Virginia, the consent decree will allow any “print-disabled” voter to receive their ballot via email — a right typically reserved for military personnel overseas.
The ballots still must be printed out and returned, either by mail or dropped off in person. The consent decree requires that the local registrar send visually impaired voters return envelopes with tactile markings to assist them, and instructs registrars not to reject ballots if the vision-impaired voter’s signature or address is written in a wrong spot.
“As Attorney General, I have a duty to make sure that every eligible Virginian, including those with disabilities, are able to exercise their right to vote, while also promoting health and safety,” Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) said in a statement Friday. “This agreement is another big win for democracy and for Virginia voters.”
Tracy Soforenko, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia, said the consent decree is a major relief, especially for blind voters who live alone and would either have to ask someone for help filling out a traditional mail-in ballot or rely on public transit — increasing the risk of coronavirus exposure — to vote in person.
“You have to find someone to help you complete that ballot, and you have to trust that they’ll adequately complete that ballot as you wish,” Soforenko said. “People have really strong opinions about voting. Your neighbor might not necessarily agree with who you want to vote for. I wouldn’t know that they completed my ballot accurately. That’s not fair. That’s not right. That’s not the private, independent ballot that we are guaranteed.”
Sam Joehl, president of the American Council of the Blind of Virginia, is among the blind Virginians who live alone. He said he had to ask a neighbor who lives in his building for help filling out his ballot, an experience he described as uncomfortable.
But Joehl cautioned that he considered himself one of the lucky ones. Other members risked their health to vote in person or go to a local elections office, he said.
One was Regina Root. A 53-year-old professor of Hispanic studies at William & Mary, Root has nystagmus, a condition that causes her eyes to move involuntarily and makes it extremely challenging to read. “To me, the whole world feels like it is moving on a merry-go-round,” she wrote in a declaration filed in court.
Root, who developed the condition after brain surgery several years ago, said in an interview Monday that she and her husband went to their local registrar in June to fill out an absentee ballot for the Virginia primary because it was too late to send it through the mail.
It was the first time Root had been out in months, she said, since she falls in a category of vulnerable people at risk of severe complications from the coronavirus. Her husband, Michael, had to fill out a form certifying that he would vote on Root’s behalf since she could not read the form herself.
“I love Michael, but with a PhD, for as much as I’ve studied in my world, casting a vote independently and just being able to think through this on my own is really important,” Root said. “That is the right we all cherish.”
Virginia has until Sept. 18 to make the electronic mail-in ballot available to vision-impaired voters for the general election, and a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Elections said the state is confident it will meet the deadline.
“The Department of Elections looks forward to educating voters on this option, incorporating it into our social media, website and other public relation avenues,” spokeswoman Jessica Bowman said.
Miller and Joehl said the consent decree does not mark the end of the fight to ensure accessible voting for the vision-impaired, and Bowman said legislative action will be necessary for the changes to be permanent.
The groups intend to press the state for long-term solutions after the November election, including to allow blind voters to return mail-in ballots via email, Joehl said.