Voting in New York will become easier for blind and disabled residents following the settlement of a lawsuit against the New York State Board of Elections this week.
Under the new terms, the state board has until June 1 to create an electronic voting method that will allow voters with disabilities that make reading or writing text difficult, such as blindness or paralysis, to print out ballots online and mail them back.
“Through this agreement, the New York State Board of Elections has made it easier for people with print disabilities to vote with greater privacy and independence,” said Timothy A. Clune, executive director of Disability Rights New York, in a statement.
The original complaint filed in May 2020 said voters with disabilities who did not want to vote in person out of fear of contracting Covid-19 were being excluded from absentee voting because they were unable to independently fill out paper ballots.
Once the new system is in place, voters with disabilities will be able to request ballots from their local election boards up to 15 days before any election. These ballots will come with postage-paid return envelopes and “oath envelopes” that will feature raised markers indicating where voters with visual impairments can sign their names, though the board will accept signatures written anywhere on the envelopes.
The new system will also allow voters with disabilities to mark their ballots electronically with the help of computer softwarethat describes text and images in sound. Marked ballots can then be printed and mailed.
The settlement requires the board to pay $400,000 in attorney fees to those who sued.
John Conklin, a spokesman for the Board of Elections, said the board would work to have the new system up and running in time for the state primary elections in June, but added that the time frame was “very, very tight.”
If the board is unable to put in place the electronic ballot system by June 1, voters will still be able to request digital ballots that they can fill out, he said.
In June 2020, with the pandemic raging, the state made absentee voting somewhat easier. Former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued an executive order allowing all residents to request ballots for the state’s primary elections and for the general election.
But the state was unprepared for the surge in requests, which overwhelmed election officials. The unexpected demand caused nearly one-fifth of New York City’s ballots to be disqualified and about 100,000 ballots in Brooklyn to be misprinted.
In a joint statement, disability rights activists across the state said they would continue to push for more ways to allow voters with disabilities to cast their ballots with greater ease.