Maine plans to start offering electronic absentee ballots for people who are visually impaired, an accessible alternative demanded in a federal lawsuit this summer.

A group of voters sued the state and several municipalities in June, arguing that Maine was violating federal law by not providing people who are visually impaired with an electronic option to vote absentee during a pandemic.

Every polling place in Maine has an accessible voting machine for people with disabilities, but paper ballots were the only option for most people who want to vote absentee. Voters who are visually impaired can receive assistance in reading or marking those paper ballots, but there was no way to vote without relying on someone’s help. When election officials encouraged people to prevent the spread of coronavirus by voting absentee in the July primary, the plaintiffs said, they were forced to choose between their health and their desire to vote in private.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said Monday that voters who are visually impaired will be able to fill out and return their absentee ballots electronically in November and beyond. The electronic ballots make it possible to vote with computer assistance. Dunlap’s office plans to launch its new accessible voting system by next month.

“The pandemic is what has inspired this, but we may see a lot of things from the pandemic become permanent,” Dunlap said.

Disability Rights Maine is representing the plaintiffs, four voters from different Maine communities. Their complaint says they are all blind or have abnormal vision loss.

“The new electronic system promises equal opportunity for voters with disabilities to cast a their absentee ballot privately, independently and safely during the pandemic and beyond,” said Kristin Aiello, a senior attorney at Disability Rights Maine. “There is nothing more American than being able to exercise the right to cast a vote by secret ballot.”

The state is adapting the system it already uses for overseas and military voters, who were previously the only Mainers allowed to use electronic ballots. That option has been used in other states, including Delaware. A status report filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Portland outlined the process for updating and testing the new system. The online portal to request an absentee ballot now includes a notice that accessible ballots are “coming soon” for voters with disabilities.

The status report says the state will ensure the portal is accessible to screen reader software, and the voter will self-certify that they have a disability that necessitates the accessible ballot. Once that application is approved, the voter will receive a secure login and credentials to access their ballots and fill them out on a computer.

Dunlap said the state will ask municipalities to submit their ballots to be converted into an accessible format. Once completed, those ballots will be forwarded to those municipalities to be counted.

The report also details the timeline for the new system to be online. Testing will begin by the end of August. The new system will launch by Sept. 19.

Neither Dunlap nor Aiello could predict how many voters would use the new system in November. Dunlap said his office is working with its existing vendors to make this change, so he does not expect a significant cost. A spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office also said she could not yet break down the cost of launching the accessible voting system.

“I think it is really, really useful for the people who want to participate,” Dunlap said. “In that regard, whatever the cost is is worth it.”

The plaintiffs are Lynn Merrill of Augusta, Nicholas Guidice of Bangor, Paula Lamontagne of Portland and Cheryl Peabody of Winslow. The complaint details their efforts to get accessible ballots from their local election officials during the July primary. They have declined interview requests through their attorney.

Merrill, who is an officer in the Maine chapter of the American Council of the Blind, uses a guide dog and assistive technology, like text-to-speech software, on her computer and iPhone. The complaint also says she is an older adult with an underlying medical condition that puts her at increased risk if she contracts the virus.

So Merrill wrote to the city clerk in Augusta multiple times in June to request an absentee ballot for the primary in an electronic format, which she could fill out using the software on her computer. Roy, the clerk, told her she could have two trusted people help her complete the ballot. Another officer from the American Council of the Blind emailed a letter to the state to express concern about that option, but the complaint says no one ever responded.

The complaint does not say whether Merrill voted in the primary.

Aiello said Merrill and the other plaintiffs will be involved in testing the new system.

“A crucial part of the state’s implementation of the new system is to undergo testing not just by the vendors who are creating the system, but also by the voters who will use it,” she said. “The plaintiffs and other blind voters have volunteered to be part of this effort. We are all on the same team in wanting the system to be effective and usable.”

The lawsuit is still pending. The parties will file an update with the court before the next status conference in September.

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