by Lynn Merrill, with Pauline Lamontagne, Nicholas Giudice, and Cheryl Peabody
We submit this article for two reasons: one, to describe how we challenged our state and municipal officials in order to create accessible, electronic absentee ballots for voters who are unable to complete a print ballot; and two, we want to motivate others to have the courage and passion to actively support causes that they believe in, as one, a few, or many, can effect change despite being told “no.”
We are a group of four from Maine. We were at first bonded by acquaintanceships and friendships, but we came together to face the odds of making a huge change that would affect the rights of thousands of people, and we won. We stand together, proud and somewhat in awe of the fact that we did it. We actually did it! Together, the four of us stood up against bureaucracy, politics, and our own self-doubts as people with disabilities who too often took “no” for an answer.
“By many accounts, Maine leads the country in voting rights: it has allowed some form of voting by absentee ballot for decades, is one of only two states allowing people with felony convictions to vote (including those still in prison), was the first state allowing ranked-choice voting in both state and federal elections, and consistently boasts some of the highest statewide voter turnout in the nation. However, despite this progressive voting record, until recently many Mainers still had difficulty (or were completely unable) to vote independently because the paper-based absentee ballot system was inaccessible to people with visual impairments. This lack of voting access is particularly problematic in Maine, as we are a rural state with limited public transportation and have an aging population, many of whom experience vision loss and associated driving challenges.”
In the spring of 2020, Americans were immersed in the effects of the COVID pandemic. We were trying to follow the guidelines that were being given to us about masking, distancing, reporting and cleansing. The July primaries were approaching. In Maine, voting places were being consolidated in municipalities and our Secretary of State and governor were urging voters to avoid the risks of physically going to these polling places, and instead to vote by absentee ballot. Their pleas were on television, radio, and newspapers. Good advice to follow; however, Maine did not have accessible electronic absentee ballots for print-disabled voters. The choices were dismal; abandon the right to vote privately and independently by having someone complete one’s absentee ballot for them, or risk one’s health by going to a polling place to use the express voting machine.
Disability Rights Maine (DRM) took a complaint from one voter who believed that the State of Maine should provide accessible electronic absentee ballots for those voters with print disabilities. There was no question that their fundamental rights to private and independent voting were compromised, especially in light of the encouragement from the Secretary of State and governor.
Four voters with varying degrees of visual impairments ultimately challenged our respective municipal city clerks as well as the Secretary of State to develop accessible electronic absentee ballots, but our requests were dismissed. Instead, we were told (1) that it was not possible to use electronic absentee ballots and (2) that if we wanted to vote absentee, we would need to get third-party assistance filling out paper ballots.
We all believed that our concerns should have and could have been resolved without litigation, but the dismissal of our requests left us with only one alternative. We joined in a lawsuit against the state and our four respective municipalities for not providing an electronic alternative to the paper absentee ballots. Our request would not have involved “inventing the wheel” because Maine already had electronic absentee ballots available for access by service members who were residents of Maine but assigned outside of the state. Of note is that those already existing ballots for service members did not include municipal ballots. That would change as a positive yet unintended consequence of the settlement agreement that was to come.
“In mid-July 2020 we lodged our complaint in the United States District Court for Maine. In Merrill v. Dunlap, Lynn Merrill, Pauline Lamontagne, Cheryl Peabody, and Nicholas Giudice argued (as the plaintiffs in civil action no. 1:20-cv-00248) for the right to vote privately and independently by electronic absentee ballot in the November 3, 2020 election and in future elections in the State of Maine. The lawsuit, led by Kristen Aiello and Disability Rights Maine, was based on the premise that we should not have to risk our health, privacy, or independence to vote in the same way that is available to other Mainers and that was the explicit guidance of our governor and Secretary of State as the preferred and advised method of doing so.
“What became obvious from the first hearing in federal court is that the state was not going to fight us on the matter and did actually want to provide a mechanism for accessible absentee voting through the use of electronic ballots, similar to what was already available to state residents deployed in the military. For the process to work, however, there would need to be updates made to the electronic PDF ballot, which was not then accessible, meaning that it would not read correctly with a screen reader. At this point, the Secretary of State’s Office touted this tentative agreement as a win for Maine’s citizens and something that was absolutely a worthy cause. While this was a 180-degree reversal of their previous stance, and it is frustrating that it took a lawsuit to make it happen, the net result is what counts.
“In the following six weeks, we (the plaintiffs and a group of volunteer blind beta testers throughout the state) worked closely with the state’s vendor, who was handling the electronic election content to help them make the ballots work with speech. Given that we are one of two states in the union with ranked-choice voting and there are lots of individual municipalities, this process was not as straightforward as one might think. However, on Oct. 2, 2020, Maine became one of only a few states that had developed a fully accessible electronic absentee ballot voting mechanism that is available to all people with a print disability that limits their use of a traditional paper ballot.
“An unexpected but positive result of our lawsuit was that the state now needed a new mechanism to monitor the status of electronic absentee ballots being submitted. This led to development and deployment of a new state-wide absentee ballot tracking service for the 2020 election (and beyond) that ultimately benefitted all Maine voters. With this system, anybody who requests an absentee ballot, paper or electronic, can use the online portal to track its status throughout the entire process, from request to knowing whether it was accepted or rejected. This tracking system represents an important step in improving election transparency, which hopefully will increase public perception (and confidence) in the integrity of the absentee voting process.
“The electronic tracking system has now been used by thousands of Maine voters who had no idea of our fight for accessible electronic absentee ballots but who benefitted from our actions.”
We reached a settlement agreement prior to the November 2020 general election which provides the electronic alternative that we sought. Any registered voter with a print disability can now electronically request a fully accessible absentee ballot (for any reason), complete the ballot online and return it electronically to the Secretary of State. Most importantly, the entire end-to-end process can be done completely independently!
The quotes in this article were taken from another article about this process: “One Vote for Me, Many Votes for Mainekind,” which has a detailed description of one plaintiff’s experience, and can be found here: