Coalition of Disability Groups Demand Access to Virginia’s Inaccessible Absentee Voting
Individuals and Disability Organizations File Lawsuit Today in Federal Court
July 28, 2020 – Alexandria, VA – On the heels of the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the 35th anniversary of the Virginians with Disability Act, a coalition of disability organizations and individual voters sued the Commonwealth of Virginia for excluding Virginians with disabilities from absentee voting in November. The Commonwealth’s current absentee voting discriminates against voters who cannot mark a paper ballot due to print disabilities, including blindness. Instead of voting absentee like other Virginia citizens, these voters must reveal their choices to another person and hope that person correctly records their absentee vote or risk COVID-19 infection by travelling to the polls to vote in person. Because some are immunocompromised and at greater risk from the COVID-19 virus, this is an untenable choice.
Virginia officials themselves have recognized the need to expand absentee voting because of the pandemic. As Governor Ralph Northam urged, “Virginians should never have to choose between casting a ballot and risking their health.”i Yet, despite advocacy from the coalition, Virginia officials have not taken sufficient steps on their own to address the rights of blind or print-disabled voters in time for the November 2020 general election.
Virginia already has an accessible vote-by-mail system in place, but refuses to roll it out to counties statewide. The suit seeks statewide implementation of the accessible vote-by-mail (RAVBM) system in time for the November 2020 election.
Sam Joehl, President of the American Council of the Blind of Virginia stated: “We are disappointed that the Virginia Department of Elections has not been forward in articulating a plan that would provide for a private, safe and independent ballot for voters with disabilities. We call upon the Virginia government to uphold their legal and moral obligations by implementing a solution that allows voters with disabilities to cast their ballots safely and independently. The ADA was signed into law 30 years ago to prevent situations like the one we have in Virginia.”
“30 years ago, Justin Dart, the father of the ADA, exhorted people with disabilities to ‘Vote as if your life depends on it – because it does’,” said Eve Hill of Brown Goldstein & Levy. “Yet today, voters with disabilities must risk their lives to vote in Virginia.”
Colleen Miller, the Executive Director of the disAbility Law Center of Virginia, stated “In these extraordinary times, it is critical that we protect the rights of all, and that includes the right to vote. With an epidemic impacting people with disabilities more than any other demographic, the Commonwealth must do everything in its power to ensure those voices are heard.”
“The National Federation of the Blind has fought successfully for blind and deafblind voters across the nation for decades, and this advocacy is all the more urgent during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Tracy Soforenko, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia. “The nation’s blind will not tolerate being treated as second-class citizens in Virginia or anywhere else.”
“It is appropriate on the 30th Anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act to remember that the right of equal access to the ballot is foundational to democracy,” said Steven Hollman, Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, LLP.
Individuals with disabilities have a right to all aspects of the voting process, including remote absentee voting,” said Maggie Hart, Counsel at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee “The U.S Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, of which Virginia is part, has already held that voters with disabilities must have equal access to a state’s absentee voting program. We call on Virginia to do the right thing for its voters.”
The lawsuit was filed by the American Council of the Blind of Virginia and the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia, and individual plaintiffs including Carshena Gary, Lori Scharff, Regina Root, Ph.D., Naim Muawia Abu-El Hawa, and John Halverson, Ph.D. It alleges violations of Title II of the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and Virginia law.
Counsel for this case include Eve L. Hill of Brown Goldstein & Levy, the disAbility Law Center of Virginia, Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, LLP, and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs.
About American Council of the Blind (ACB): The American Council of the Blind is a national grassroots consumer organization representing Americans who are blind and visually impaired. With 70 affiliates, ACB strives to increase the independence, security, equality of opportunity, and to improve quality of life for all blind and visually impaired people. Learn more by visiting www.acb.org.
About Brown Goldstein and Levy: BGL provides the highest quality legal services to a broad range of clients, without sacrificing our sense of community and social responsibility. By elevating our clients’ voices and fighting for their rights, we seek to bring about a more just world – sometimes one dispute at a time, sometimes through systemic change.
About the disAbility Law Center of Virginia: disAbility Law Center of Virginia is the protection and advocacy agency charged by the state and federal governments, on behalf of people with disabilities, to advance independence, choice and self-determination; protect legal, human and civil rights; and eliminate abuse, neglect and discrimination of people with disabilities through zealous and uncompromising legal advocacy and representation.
About National Federation of the Blind (NFB): The National Federation of the Blind, headquartered in Baltimore, is the oldest and largest nationwide organization of blind Americans. Founded in 1940, the NFB consists of affiliates, chapters, and divisions in the fifty states, Washington DC, and Puerto Rico. The NFB defends the rights of blind people of all ages and provides information and support to families with blind children, older Americans who are losing vision, and more. We believe in the hopes and dreams of blind people and work together to transform them into reality. Learn more about our many programs and initiatives at www.nfb.org.
About Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP: Sheppard Mullin is a full-service Global 100 firm with more than 900 attorneys in 15 offices located in the United States, Europe and Asia. Since 1927, industry-leading companies have turned to Sheppard Mullin to handle corporate and technology matters, high-stakes litigation and complex financial transactions. In the U.S., the firm's clients include almost half of the Fortune 100. For more information, please visit www.sheppardmullin.com.
About the Washington Lawyers’ Committee: Founded in 1968, The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs works to create legal, economic and social equity through litigation, client and public education and public policy advocacy. While we fight discrimination against all people, we recognize the central role that current and historic race discrimination plays in sustaining inequity and recognize the critical importance of identifying, exposing, combatting and dismantling the systems that sustain racial oppression. For more information, please visit http://www.washlaw.org or call 202.319.1000. Follow us on Twitter at @WashLaw4CR.
American Council of the Blind: Clark Rachfal, [email protected], 202-467-5081
disAbility Law Center of Virginia: Colleen Miller, [email protected], (804) 225-2042
National Federation of the Blind: Chris Danielsen, [email protected], 410-262-1281
Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP: Steven Hollman, [email protected], 202-747-1941
Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs: Gregg Kelley, [email protected], 202-319-1070
[i] Whittney Evans, Lawsuit Tries to Stop Virginians From Using Coronavirus as Excuse to Vote Absentee, Va.’s Home for Pub. Media (VPM) (May 21, 2020), https://vpm.org/news/articles/13610/lawsuit-tries-to-stop-virginians-from-using-coronavirus-as-excuse-to-vote; PBS NewsHour, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam Gives Coronavirus Update, YouTube (Apr. 24, 2020), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQ-BX1fI-N0&t=320s.