Maryland Elections Board, Blind Advocates Reach Agreement on Efforts to Improve Ballot Privacy for Voters with Disabilities

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The Maryland State Board of Elections has settled a longstanding dispute over ballot-marking devices that disability advocates say forced them to cast a segregated ballot.

The terms of the settlement were publicly announced Tuesday by the National Federation of the Blind, which filed a lawsuit over ballot privacy in August 2019.

At issue are the state’s ballot-marking devices, which allow voters who are blind or have other disabilities to use headphones, magnification, touchscreens and other features to independently cast ballots. But the machines also produce a ballot printout that’s a different size and shape than the paper ballots cast by a vast majority of Maryland voters.

In recent elections, many precincts in the state saw only one single ballot cast using a marking device – making the voter’s identity and candidate choices entirely obvious and violating the right to a private ballot, advocates argued.

Under the terms of the settlement as announced by the federation, the Maryland State Board of Elections will take several steps to address privacy and access concerns:

  • The elections board will ensure that additional ballot-marking devices are available at the polling places of three plaintiffs — voters Marie Cobb, Ruth Sager, and Joel Zimba — who documented access and equipment issues in the lawsuit. The state will also ensure that additional machines are in place at polling places where there have been issues in past elections and at precincts that would experience significant delays waiting for a replacement if a machine breaks down.
  • Training materials issued to election judges by the state will instruct them to ensure that at least ten voters at each polling location use a ballot-marking device, which will help protect privacy. Election judges at polling places that do not meet the 10-voter requirement will be subject to additional monitoring and training.
  • When the state next buys or leases election equipment, officials will include the capability for ballot-marking machines to produce a ballot substantially similar in size, shape, and content to hand-marked paper ballots as a factor in picking which voting system to purchase or lease.
  • Elections officials will not discourage the use of ballot-marking devices or encourage the use of hand-marked paper ballots in public messages or election judge trainings.

The elections board will also give the National Federation of the Blind data about the use of ballot-marking devices and complaints by voters with disabilities for each election through 2024.

A $230,000 financial settlement to cover the legal fees and costs of the National Federation of the Blind and the plaintiffs is subject to approval by the Board of Public Works. The panel is expected to take up the settlement agreement at its Sept. 1 meeting, according to court filings.

“After almost five years of advocacy, litigation, and negotiation, we are hopeful that this settlement represents the first steps on a path to true equality for Maryland’s blind and disabled voters,” Ronza Othman, a civil rights attorney and president of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland, said in a written statement. “Ultimately, Maryland must completely eliminate its segregated voting system for blind and disabled voters, and we will continue to work toward that goal even as we celebrate the progress represented by this agreement.”

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Danielle E. Gaines
Danielle Gaines covered government and politics for Maryland Matters for two years before moving into an editing position. Previously, she spent six years at The Frederick News-Post ― as the paper’s principal government and politics reporter for half that time, covering courts and legal affairs before that. She also reported for the now-defunct The Gazette of Politics and Business in Maryland and previously worked as a county government and education reporter at The Merced Sun-Star in California’s Central Valley.