SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — As more Californians skip the polls to mail in their ballots, a Bay Area county will become the first in the state to make voting-by-mail accessible to the blind.
Under a Monday settlement in Federal Court, San Mateo County has set an “ambitious goal” of making its mail-in ballots fully accessible to visually impaired voters by the June 2017 elections.
And the county has agreed to bring disabled-accessible voting machines directly to the homes of blind voters upon request for this year’s general election.
U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer approved the settlement framework Monday, nearly nine months after the California Council of the Blind and two blind voters sued the county and state in December 2015.
The plaintiffs said a program launched in 2014 to expand mail-in ballots and reduce polling sites in the county forced blind voters to “sacrifice the confidentiality” of their votes by making them rely on others to fill out ballots.
“As voting evolves, we want to make sure blind and disabled voters aren’t left behind,’ plaintiffs’ attorney Michael Nunez said. “This order sets forth a process that makes sure that doesn’t happen.”
In the last presidential election, more Californians cast their ballots by mail — 51 percent — than voted at the polls for the first time in the state’s history, according to the California Secretary of State’s Office. In San Mateo County, 46 percent of voters cast their ballots by mail in the 2012 presidential race.
“I think the county is really embracing this process, and the order is really a voluntary agreement by all the parties on a way forward, given the importance of this issue for all parties,” San Mateo deputy general counsel Glenn Levy said.
Nunez and Levy say the agreement has implications that could reverberate across the state.
Deadlines under the new deal require the California Secretary of State to certify a new, accessible vote-by-mail system for the county by March 6, 2017.
“Once the secretary certifies that tool, counties across the state will be able to make that same tool available to blind and disabled voters in their jurisdictions as well,” Nunez said. “That will increase accessibility for blind and disabled voters in a profound way.”
One barrier to a more accessible vote-by-mail system was a state law that prohibits voting systems from connecting to the Internet. However, Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 2252 into law on July 22, which authorizes the use of assistive technology to let disabled voters independently fill out their mail-in ballots.
The new system will let blind voters download ballots and use text-to-speech technology to fill them out before printing and mailing them, without transmitting their votes over the Internet, Nunez said.
The county started the process by issuing a request for information from vendors on Aug. 15. Levy said the county received eight vendor responses last week, and is on track to meet the deadlines and submit an application for its new system to the state by Oct. 17.
If all goes according to plan, the new system should be in place by May next year.
“We would be the first county to do this,” Levy said. “If this is successful, which we hope it will be, it gives other counties an example of how to do this in a good, collaborative way.”
Nunez, who works for Rosen Bien Galvin & Grunfield in San Francisco, called the deal “a victory” for his clients and disabled voters across the state.
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