Voters head down the lobby of the Cross Insurance Center where voting booths are set up during Tuesday's election in Bangor. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — A group of visually impaired Mainers sued Secretary of State Matt Dunlap and city and town clerks in federal court Wednesday over what they say is a failure to provide fully accessible voting.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor by Disability Rights Maine attorney Kristen Aiello on behalf of four people contends that the state violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Maine Human Rights Act because it has not offered a way for visually impaired people to vote safely and privately during the coronavirus pandemic. 

They are asking the courts to force the state to implement an electronic absentee voting option before the Nov. 3 election to prevent people with disabilities from going to the polls, where they say they will be at high risk of contracting the virus because of the proximity to others.

The state encouraged people to vote absentee in the July primary held Tuesday due to the virus. Voters did so at record rates, but the state only offers paper ballots except for a few circumstances, which Aiello wrote are inaccessible to print-disabled persons and would require the assistance of another to complete, denying the plaintiffs the right to vote privately. 

In addition, her clients are afraid to seek assistance because of the virus, which can often be asymptomatic. The plaintiffs are asking the state to provide accessible options, acknowledge it has violated their rights and to cover any legal fees generated by the suit. 

Kristen Muszynski, spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office, declined to comment on the suit, citing pending litigation.

Aiello wrote that each of the people contacted clerks in Augusta, Bangor, Portland and Winslow seeking accessible options. In three of the instances, the plaintiffs were told to use paper ballots, while another was advised to use the polling location’s ExpressVote system, which uses touch screen technology to create a marked paper ballot for people with disabilities. In other instances, they were advised to find someone they trust to help fill out their ballots.

Access to the ExpressVote system was “one of the most important reasons” the state kept polling locations open, rather than going completely absentee ballot voting as some groups advocated, Muszynski said in an email. The state does not have Braille ballots. But Aiello said doing so gave print-disabled people no options that were both private and safe.

“Exercising the most fundamental right in a democracy, the right to vote, should not depend on the kindness of strangers,” she said in an interview. “But for blind people and others with print disabilities in Maine, it does.”

She said the state could use provisions in a 2015 bill that allows people with disabilities to use electronic software or ballots provided to overseas citizens

Advocacy groups reached out to the state twice prior to the primary raising concerns about voting accessibility. Mark Riccobono, president of The National Federation of the Blind, sent a letter to Dunlap on September 27, 2019. Sherry Belka, the president of the American Council of the Blind of Maine, sent a letter on June 14, asking Dunlap to share with them the state’s plan for providing accessible ballots. Both letters never received a reply, according to the lawsuit.

BDN reporter Judy Harrison contributed to this report.