The Commonwealth Agrees to Consent Decree for November 3RD Election that will Include Electronic Ballot Marking
The Commonwealth of Virginia committed to making the November 2020 election accessible and safe for voters who cannot mark a paper ballot privately and independently due to disabilities such as blindness. As a result of the lawsuit and preliminary injunction filed by several voters with disabilities, the American Council of the Blind of Virginia, and the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia, Virginia has agreed to provide an absentee ballot option that is accessible and can be marked electronically in time for the November election. Without Friday’s consent decree, these voters would be forced to either vote absentee with assistance, revealing their choices to another person and hoping that person correctly records their vote, or risk COVID-19 infection by traveling to the polls to vote in person. No voter should be faced with this untenable choice in order to exercise their right to vote.
On July 27, 2020, several voters with disabilities, the American Council of the Blind of Virginia, and the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia filed a complaint in the Eastern District of Virginia against the Commonwealth for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Virginia Disabilities Act. Today, Judge Hilton of the Eastern District of Virginia accepted the consent decree agreed upon by the parties, which requires that the Commonwealth provide a remote access vote by mail tool that will allow voters with print disabilities to receive and mark their ballot electronically for the election on November 3rd. The consent decree also includes measures that the Commonwealth will take to ensure that the electronic ballot option is implemented across the state and that voters receive information about how to receive an accessible ballot.
Lori Scharff, a plaintiff in this case who was not able to vote privately and independently with Virginia’s current ballot options, stated “I am so thrilled with this outcome. There are so many hurdles to voting that people don’t realize exist. I am hopeful that this agreement will demonstrate to other states that all of your citizens should be able to participate privately and independently in our elections.”
Sam Joehl, President of the American Council of the Blind of Virginia stated: “We applaud the Commonwealth for quickly recognizing that the right to vote privately and independently is essential for voters with disabilities, especially in such a consequential election during a global pandemic. We hope the state will work with the local jurisdictions to make the option for remote electronic ballot marking available to all voters with print disabilities who require this option, and promote the availability of the system to these communities. ACB stands ready to work with the state to help blind voters in Virginia exercise their right to a private and independent vote.”
“As we continue our national fight for accessible absentee and mail-in ballots, we are pleased that Virginia will now be among the growing list of states where the right of blind voters to mark our absentee ballots safely, privately and independently is secure,” said Tracy Soforenko, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia. “We urge all blind Virginians to exercise this fundamental right.”
“Now people with disabilities in Virginia will be able to vote as if their lives depend on it – without risking their lives to do so,” said Eve Hill of Brown, Goldstein & Levy.
Colleen Miller, the Executive Director of the disAbility Law Center of Virginia, stated: “”All Virginians have the right to vote privately and safely. We look forward to working with the board of elections to make that right a reality.”
“My clients are courageous individuals with print disabilities who should be able to engage in activities many of us take for granted.” said Steven Hollman, Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, LLP. “That’s why it is especially gratifying to help ensure that they will be able to exercise the most cherished right offered in a democracy – the right to vote privately and independently — on equal terms with other voters.”
“The Washington Lawyers’ Committee is proud to represent a coalition of such strong advocates. We applaud the Commonwealth of Virginia for their efforts to work with our coalition,” said Maggie Hart, Counsel at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee “Access to a private ballot is the foundation of our democracy and this consent decree reaffirms that our Constitution applies to everyone.”
The lawsuit was filed by the American Council of the Blind of Virginia and the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia, and individual plaintiffs including Carshena Gary, Lori Scharff, Regina Root, Ph.D., Naim Muawia Abu-El Hawa, and John Halverson, Ph.D.
Counsel for this case includes Eve L. Hill of Brown, Goldstein & Levy, the disAbility Law Center of Virginia, Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, LLP, and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs.