San Mateo Gets Time to Accommodate Blind Voters

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A federal judge has asked county and state officials and the California Council of the Blind to determine if there is common ground to implement an absentee ballot system for blind voters.
     U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer on Friday refused to grant for the time being the council’s motion for a preliminary injunction after it accused San Mateo County and the State of California of disenfranchising blind and visually impaired voters by launching an all-paper absentee ballot pilot program last year. The 2014 program didn’t include an electronic screen-reading option for blind voters, making it necessary to ask someone to fill out their paper ballot for them.
     Breyer said although he believed a new voting system for blind voters should be established and that the plaintiffs had an “excellent” chance of prevailing on the merits of their claim, he couldn’t grant their motion because the state would have insufficient time to vet and approve a new system by the November election.
     “The reality is, to implement a new system at this point is a serious problem with respect to its implementation and with respect to the entire structure of the state certification process,” Breyer said.
     The plaintiffs want a new voting method that permits blind voters to mark their ballots independently. They cite online absentee voting programs for blind voters in several states that use text-to-speech software to read their ballot to them, according to the complaint.
     At issue in California is a statute in the elections code that prohibits voting systems from connecting to the internet. However, the state Senate on Thursday passed a bill that would enable voters with disabilities to download text-to-speech software-compatible ballots, mark them on their computer, print them out and return them to their election official. The bill goes to the governor’s desk next week.
     Breyer asked the two sides to submit a letter by Aug. 1 detailing their positions after completing their talks. A hearing will be set if necessary, he said.
     “We’re optimistic there will be room for the parties to move forward in a positive, constructive way,” plaintiffs’ counsel Michael Nunez said of Breyer’s request. “The election code shouldn’t be a barrier.”
     Breyer said he hoped the parties could agree on a plan for certification without resorting to a hearing. Although he believes the plaintiffs are entitled to one, “the state’s [certification] requirements are reasonable, so you won’t be successful,” he said.
     “I would have to be convinced [the state] intentionally delayed the implementation of this system,” he added. “I don’t think the traditional process was motivated by any effort to deny people the right to vote.”
     Breyer will issue an order next week summarizing where the case stands. He said he may grant some relief regarding the election code’s prohibition on online voting systems, but will not require the state to do anything other than proceed in the ordinary certification process so that a new voting system is in place for the next election.
     “It’s a serious issue, but it’s also an issue where the parties aren’t opposite,” Breyer said. “It’s not something that can’t be resolved by discussions amongst yourselves.”
     Plaintiffs’ attorney Lisa Ells told the judge that election code authorizes the county to begin testing and contracting for methods for new voting systems now. “Our expectation is the county will start and not wait for further orders,” she said.
     San Mateo Deputy County Council Glenn Levy told the court the county is “very open” to proceeding with the certification process.
     “We have always felt that the best way to reach a solution in this situation was for the Secretary of State, the county and voters to work together, and that is exactly what Judge Breyer has asked the parties to do,” Levy said in an email.
     Lisa Ells and Michael Nunez are with Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld in San Francisco.

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