California Council of the Blind Sues Alameda County over Barriers to Voting

A class action lawsuit filed July 25, 2013 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California alleges that the County of Alameda discriminates against voters who are blind and visually impaired. Voting privately and independently is one of the most fundamental and cherished American rights. Yet Alameda County denies voters with disabilities this basic right because it fails to ensure that voting machines with accessible features are functioning properly on Election Day.
 
The lawsuit seeks to compel the county to ensure that blind and visually impaired voters are able to privately and independently vote using accessible voting machines during elections. The suit was brought by California Council of the Blind and five blind registered voters in the County of Alameda. Plaintiffs are represented by Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), a non-profit disability rights legal center that specializes in high-impact class actions. 
 
Blind voters in Alameda County encountered problems with the audio and tactile features of voting machines during the November 2012 general election. After poll workers could not fix these problems, blind voters were forced to dictate their votes to others instead of voting independently. Some of the voters who faced these barriers traveled to alternate poll sites. After experiencing similar problems with voting machines at alternate sites, they were also forced to share their ballot selections with others.
 
Plaintiff Richard Rueda is blind and resides in Union City. Rueda, a registered voter in Alameda County, said, "It was frustrating to find problems with voting machines at my designated poll site as well as an alternate site during the November 2012 general election. These barriers prevented me from voting independently on Election Day."
 
Counties throughout California and across the country use voting machines equipped with tactile controls and text-to-speech audio software that enable voters with disabilities to privately enter their ballot selections during elections. When functioning properly, these machines read the on-screen ballot information aloud via headphones and allow blind voters to independently input ballot choices using tactile controls.
 
Although July 26, 2013 is the 23rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with disabilities are still struggling to have equal access to the most fundamental of our constitutional rights – the right to vote.
 
Donna Pomerantz, president of the California Council of the Blind, said, "It's astounding that on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, people who are blind and visually impaired are still fighting for equal rights to something as basic as voting. Technology exists to make voting fully accessible to people who are visually impaired."
 
To ensure that accessible voting machines function properly on Election Day, counties must train poll workers on the appropriate set-up and use of the machines. The accessible features of these machines must be tested to ensure their effectiveness prior to opening the machines to the public on Election Day. Poll workers should also have reliable access to technical support services to handle concerns as they arise on Election Day.
 
Plaintiff Lisamaria Martinez is blind and resides in Union City. Martinez, a registered voter in Alameda County, said, "As an American, I want to fully participate in the democratic process and vote independently and privately in public elections as my sighted peers do."
 
Unless the county takes steps to maintain fully functioning machines, the county will continue to deny blind and visually impaired voters the right to vote privately and independently during elections.
 
Stuart Seaborn, senior staff attorney at Disability Rights Advocates, said, "Voters with disabilities have lower levels of turnout for elections than people without disabilities. Forcing voters to dictate their votes to third parties only further discourages people with disabilities from voting."