A federal court ruled May 11 that the state of Ohio’s absentee ballot system discriminates against people with visual disabilities, but that it does not have to reform its system before the upcoming presidential election.
In Ohio, people with visual disabilities seeking to obtain an absentee ballot must do so via the Secretary of State’s website. The form to fill out the ballot only comes in the form of a fillable PDF, meaning that people with visual disabilities can only access it with the assistance of a third party.
The state then mails them a print-only ballot.
Disability Rights Ohio and Brown, Goldstein, & Levy, LLP, on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind, filed a lawsuit against the state in December 2015, contending that it denies people with disabilities “meaningful access” to its absentee ballot system, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The lawsuit also argued [PDF] that the Secretary of State’s website violates the ADA, as it also allegedly contains inaccessible voter registration and change-of-address forms.
The State argued that the system, as a whole, provides voters with disabilities meaningful access, but the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio adopted the plaintiff’s approach, narrowing the scope of the inquiry.
“To non-disabled voters, Ohio has provided the ability to vote absentee privately, independently, and secretly,” the Court ruled. “There is no dispute that disabled voters require assistance under the current system to vote by absentee. The inability of disabled voters to vote absentee in a private and independent manner evidences that these voters do not have the same meaningful access to mail-in absentee ballots that non-disabled voters enjoy.”
The lawsuit, when filed, sought to require the state to reform the system before the March Democratic and Republican primaries.
The Court found that the plaintiff’s requested remedy – that the system be reformed before the November election – would be a “fundamental alteration” of the state’s voting system, although it urged the State to make reforms.
“The Court encourages both Plaintiffs and the Secretary of State to continue to work on this issue and determine if such software could be implemented for future elections, or if some other alternative could be made available such as Braille ballot.”
Disability Rights Ohio and Disability Rights Washington, the publisher of Rooted in Rights, are the designated protection and advocacy agencies in Ohio and Washington, respectively, and are members of the National Disability Rights Network.