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Blind Bay Area Voters Object to Paper Ballots

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - San Mateo County stuck blind and visually impaired residents with paper ballots in a new vote-by-mail system, "sacrificing the confidentiality" of their votes, the California Council of the Blind claims in court.

The Council and two legally blind voters sued San Mateo County and California on Thursday in Federal Court.

San Mateo County in 2014 launched an all-mailed ballot pilot program, which "dramatically" expanded absentee voting and authorized "vast" reductions in the county's polling sites, the complaint states.

In offering only paper ballots, the county discarded "reliable and secure technologies" for blind and visually impaired voters to cast absentee ballots in a "private and independent manner," the voters say.

So blind and visually impaired voters needed others to read and mark their ballots, "thereby sacrificing the confidentiality of their vote, or forego their right to vote by absentee ballot altogether."

San Mateo County called it a benefit for voters, with substantial cost savings and increased turnout. But the pilot program "utterly failed" to benefit the blind, and left them without voting options available in several other states.

The new system "actually made it harder for blind and visually impaired individuals to vote," plaintiffs' attorney Lisa Ells said.

Co-counsel Robert Rubin added: "There are readily available solutions that would allow these citizens to privately and independently read and mark absentee ballots. The county's failure to adopt them discriminates against blind voters in a manner that parallels voting procedures that exclude other minority groups."

Named plaintiff James Gump, of Menlo Park, said he wants the same "convenience and flexibility" that sighted absentee voters receive.

"As a busy professional, it's inconvenient for me to travel to a poll site on election day, and I'd like to enjoy the same convenience and flexibility that sighted absentee voters receive," Gump said. "The only way that I can vote absentee right now is for someone else to read and fill out the ballot for me, but I should not need to give up my right to a secret ballot to vote absentee."

The California Council of the Blind provides information and referral, technical assistance, advocacy, leadership development, publications, emergency funds, accessible technology loans and scholarships through its 40 chapters, with offices in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and Sacramento.

Eugene Lozano, the organization's first vice president, called the ballot shift "alarming."

"It's alarming that 25 years after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, blind voters must still fight for equal access to their basic and fundamental right to vote," Lozano said.

San Mateo County spokeswoman Michelle Durand told Courthouse News Thursday evening that the county had not been served with the lawsuit.

"It is unfortunate [the California Council of the Blind] opted to file a lawsuit on an issue we've been working to address since June, and that the California Legislature has mandated the state fix on behalf of all 58 counties," Durand said.

Absentee voting was introduced in California in the 1860s to allow Civil War soldiers to vote. It was a restricted option until 1979.

Residents then were allowed to vote by mail through a "no excuse" voting law, allowing so-called excuses that included travel or illness.

California changed its voting law again in 2002 and allowed residents to become permanent vote-by-mail voters.

Absentee voting was officially renamed "vote by mail" in 2007.

In 2012, according to The California Voter Foundation, more ballots were cast in a general election by mail than at the polls for the first time.

Vote-by-mail voters in 2014 accounted for 43 percent of those registered in California, totaling nearly 8 million.

The plaintiffs seek an injunction for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and California code.

They want the defendants ordered to take all necessary steps to ensure that blind and visually impaired voters have access to an alternative method to read and mark absentee ballots privately and independently.

Attorney Ells is with Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld, of San Francisco.


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