Transforming Advocacy into Votes: The Impact of the Federation on Voting Equality; Eve Hill, Partner, Brown, Goldstein, and Levy; Baltimore, Maryland 

MARK RICCOBONO: All right! Thank you for the fit break, and it's great to be keeping the beat! Speaking of keeping the beat, we have been setting the pace as it relates to giving blind people access to voting. You heard some about it in the presidential report, but there's really much more to say about the significant work this movement has done, certainly in history, but over the last 18 months especially to transform advocacy work into real votes for blind people and others with print disabilities. So here to talk about the impact of the Federation's leadership on voting and voting equality in America is one of our primary counsel that works with us on advancing our priorities, she's a partner at Brown, Goldstein & Levy, she's no -- she's very familiar to this audience. And so I'd like to welcome back Eve Hill! 

(Who Run the World by Beyonce playing). 
Who run the world? Girls! 
Who run the world? Girls. 
Who run this mother --? Girls! 

EVE HILL: All right, I love the walk-on music, thank you so much, Mr. President, and thank you all for inviting me to speak with you today. It's such an honor and a privilege to be here, and I'm a white woman with brownish red hair and freckles, and I'm wearing glasses and a teal jacket and matching necklace. So 30 years ago, Justin Dart, one of the leaders of the movement to pass Americans with Disabilities Act, exhorted community members to vote as if your lives depend on it, because they do. Voting is the cornerstone of democracy. It's how we choose leaders who represent our values, how we hold them accountable, how we make our voices heard on issues that matter to us, and a cornerstone of the civil rights struggles throughout history, which are far from over. Blind people are at the heart of the civil rights struggle for voting equality. Blind people have faced and continue to face massive barriers to voting. Blind people face inaccessible or burdensome registration requirements, in accessible websites that prevent them from getting information on candidates, transportation barriers on getting to polls, and lack of convenient polling places keeps blind people from voting. Check in processes that undermine their independence and expose their addresses and party registrations to public scrutiny, lack of accessible machines in polling places and poll workers that don't know how to use the machines there. 

As a result, blind people have frequently had to give up the secrecy of their vote and trust that a third party doesn't intentionally or unintentionally spoil or cast their vote incorrectly. Over the years, the NFB has steadfastly stood up for the right to vote and do so privately and independently just like sighted voters too, advocating for accessible ballot marking devices at polling places, to provide enough private places so voter privacy is maintained, educate poll workers in their use, and make election websites accessible. A few years ago, the NFB's legal team took on the inaccessibility of absentee voting, which has traditionally relied on mail paper ballots that were completely inaccessible to blind people. Because the ADA covers all state and local government programs, including voting, and required them to be equally accessible to blind people as people without disabilities, the NFB succeeded in both the 4th Circuit and 6th Circuit in establishing that absentee voting is required to be accessible to the blind. 

Accessibility requires an accessible fillable ballot to be delivered electronically to the voter so they can use their assistive technology to fill it out online. Numerous options for accomplishing this are now widely available, including a variety of commercially accessible by mail systems, some of which are appearing in the exhibit hall even now. In 2019, the Federation even went forward and notified every Secretary of State in the country of their obligation to make absentee voting accessible to blind people. Then the Federation, its affiliates, members, and lawyers advocated for most of 2020 with 19 states to implement accessible absentee voting in time for the national primaries and November general election. In a few states, we didn't have to sue because we were welcomed and the state moved quickly to incorporate accessibility into their absentee ballot systems. Colorado is one state that responded to NFB's advocacy to improve its voting systems voluntarily. Because elections do have consequences. But sadly, most states did not listen. 
And then the pandemic hit, and states all across the country limited in-person voting and shifted to absentee voting for everyone, leaving blind people caught between the need to vote as if their lives depended on it, and risking their lives to vote. 

As the year went on, and the pandemic continued to make people sick and kill over half a million people, the Federation could not wait patiently. We kicked into high gear and engaged in legal advocacy with about a dozen states, and we sued in Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire, Texas, Maine, and Virginia. 

And given the urgency of the upcoming presidential elections, we sought the extraordinary remedy of preliminary injunctions, which required us to prove our cases at a hearing very quickly. 

Many of these states actually fought us. They said it was too hard to make an accessible electronic ballot! They argued they didn't have time to get it done in time for the primaries or the November election. They argued they had to go through slow and complicated procurement processes, even though emergency processes were available. I actually said to one of them, you just bought a bunch of hand sanitizer and you didn't have to go through a procurement process. They argued there were security concerns with delivering electronic ballots, which is not true, and even argued that state law prohibited electronic ballots and that the federal law didn't overrule state law, which is also not true -- the ADA tells you you have to provide accessible ballots, you have to provide accessible ballots, doesn't matter what your state law says. We also faced political pushback, unfounded security hysteria, dirty tricks and falsehoods, and courts unwilling to push states to do the right thing. But in each case except Texas, the Federation and its members forced the state to provide some form of accessible electronic ballot for the November general election. As the president said, over 11,000 people used those ballots just in the states we sued. Even though many of those states did not do a good job getting the word out about the accessible ballots, or even in some states didn't do a good job of making those ballots really accessible. 

In fact, voters with disabilities last year across the board turned out and voted in larger numbers than previous years. So the Federation has showed that if voting is accessible, blind people will turn out to vote, and every one of those votes mattered. As Barack Obama said, there's no such thing as a vote that doesn't matter. So blind people are overcoming the barriers and voting as if your lives depend on it, because they do! 

But what next? Well, in Pennsylvania and Michigan and Virginia, the states have agreed to implement professional remote accessible vote by mail systems. They did it in the November elections and they're going to do it in future elections. In New York, the state was required to provide accessible PDF ballots by e-mail, even though that was not the solution we preferred because of the difficulty of making PDFs accessible across all platforms -- maybe you can hear the thunder in my background now! 

Because of the difficulties states had using PDFs in New York, we're trying to get New York to implement a professional accessible absentee ballot system in future elections. In New Hampshire, the state implemented a professional system for November and we're negotiating with them to hopefully make their website accessible and provide a professional system in future elections. In May, we sued the state and four major cities and they have agreed to have an accessible HTML ballot in future elections and allow voters to return ballots electronically. In Texas, the unusual one, the court refused to evaluate our command at all, and the state said we have no control over what the counties do, so we have to sue the counts. But there are remaining issues. Too many states have no way of delivering an accessible ballot that voters can mark on their own computers. Too many states are relying on inadequately accessible PDF ballots, which make the process difficult for both the voter and the state, and we're preparing to file complaints with the Department of Justice about those states. And most states don't allow blind voters to electronically return their accessible ballots, so a blind person must purchase a printer, print their ballots, get them in the right envelope, sign the envelope, and return the envelope by mail, usually with the help of another person, which undermines the privacy of their vote. 
This is not equal access, and mechanisms such as accessible vote by mail systems and e-mail and fax exist to promote electronic return. States refusing to allow blind voters to electronically return ballots are relying on over blown security reference that they can overcome. Some states have already overcome them and allow overseas voters to return their ballots electronically, and the astronauts on the space station returned ballots electronically last year, but these same states won't allow blind people the same access. 

Unfortunately, the voting bill introduced in Congress now doesn't allow electronic return for blind voters, and the NFB has taken this issue on. So instead of us moving forward as voting rights moves forward, blind voters are again at risk of being left out of voting rights developments. Once again -- so it's up to the Federation, and all of us to get accessible electronic voting offered on a state by state basis. So here's my hope for us. I hope that we will advocate with all of our state and local voting officials to implement professional remote accessible vote by mail systems and methods of electronic return. I hope all of you will share the stories of your voting experiences trying to use inaccessible voting systems. And I hope you'll contact Valerie Yingling if you're willing to take action to challenge your state's lack of accessible absentee voting system. Getting the right to vote has always been a struggle. It shouldn't be, but it is. But the Federation is up for the challenge, and as Susan B Anthony once said, someone struggled for your right to vote. Use it! 

The Federation and each one of you have struggled and continue to struggle for the right of blind people to vote equally, privately, and independently. So above all, I hope you will use that precious right to vote for the things you care about, the candidates you believe in, and the issues that are important to your community and your country. Because when we vote, we are stronger together. 

Thank you very much. 

MARK RICCOBONO: Thank you very much, Eve, and I hope you use that lightning and thunder in your presentations on our behalf, you know, in cases we bring. 

EVE HILL: Oh, I always bring the thunder in court!