Blind Pennsylvanians Win Victory on Absentee Voting
State Ordered to Implement System Allowing the Blind to Cast Absentee and Mail-in Ballots Privately and Independently
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (May 28, 2020): A federal district judge has ordered the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to provide an accessible write-in ballot (AWIB) to blind Pennsylvania voters for the June 2 primary election. The ruling is a victory for Joseph Drenth, a blind Chalfont resident, who fears going to his local polling place because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mr. Drenth’s immune system is slightly compromised, and his wife and mother-in-law, with whom he lives, both have asthma and complicating factors.
The Honorable Jennifer P. Wilson, district judge for the Federal District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, issued a temporary restraining order after a Wednesday hearing in the lawsuit that Mr. Drenth and the National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania (NFB-PA) filed last week. The court’s order requires the state to provide blind voters with a list of the candidates on the ballot for their voting district along with an accessible electronic form on which they can type in their choices for each office. Blind Pennsylvania voters who wish to use the AWIB must request the accessible form by no later than 8 p.m. on Friday, May 29. Eligible voters must have applied for an absentee or mail-in ballot by the May 26, 2020 deadline, and not yet have submitted a paper ballot. The AWIB must be submitted along with a declaration and a valid identification number. Voters must return their AWIB materials by first-class mail or hand-delivery to the County Board of Elector’s office in the voter’s jurisdiction by no later than 8:00 p.m. on June 2, 2020. More details are available in this press release from the Pennsylvania Department of State.
The lawsuit, which will continue in order to resolve the question of accessible absentee and mail-in ballot solutions for elections later this year, alleges violations of Title II of the Americans with disabilities act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation act of 1973. The plaintiffs were represented by Disability Rights Pennsylvania and Brown Goldstein Levy LLP.
“Although this temporary solution is not ideal, we commend Judge Wilson for ruling expeditiously, for making it clear that commonwealth officials must respect the rights of blind voters, and for recognizing that the status quo was unacceptable,” said Lynn Heitz, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania. “In light of this ruling and the judge’s clear direction at the hearing, we hope that the commonwealth will work quickly with us to identify and implement a fully ADA-compliant voting solution for future elections.”