Cynthia Grier drops off hear absentee ballot at Portland City Hall on Oct. 5, 2020. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Maine will be required to develop an accessible absentee ballot system after July 1 as part of a Monday settlement with four visually impaired voters.

Disability Rights Maine sued then-Secretary of State Matt Dunlap last July on the behalf of Lynn Merrill, Nicholas Giudice, Pauline Lamontagne and Cheryl Peabody, who argued the state’s lack of an online absentee ballot option for those who cannot use a traditional paper ballot violated federal and state law and prevented them from voting safety and privately.

The state later agreed to expand online ballot options typically used by overseas voters, allowing voters to use screen-reading software to cast votes. Maine has now agreed to implement its own accessible absentee system for state elections until the 2024 November elections, according to federal court documents. Secretary of State Shenna Bellows’ office will be required to report on how many people use the system afterward.

Both parties praised the settlement, with Secretary of State Shenna Bellows calling it a “historic step” for voter access. Kristin Aiello, the Disability Rights Maine lawyer who represented the voters, said she did not know if the change would have happened without the lawsuit.

“No one wants to file a lawsuit to make systemic change,” Aiello said. “But that’s what we had to do here and the result is that finally people with disabilities will have equal access to voting, the most fundamental right in our democracy.”

Several states were sued last year during the summer months of the coronavirus pandemic by people with disabilities, who argued they were at increased risk of getting sick but unable to access options that would let them vote without assistance. Only two other states offer an electronic absentee ballot to visually impaired voters, according to the League of Women Voters Education Fund. Maine currently offers an electronic option at polling places.

The settlement requires neither party to admit liability and Maine to pay Disability Rights Maine $50,000 for legal fees and costs. A settlement with the voters’ municipalities is expected to be finalized later this month.