Blind voters sue Maryland Board of Elections, alleging discrimination at ballot box

In 2018, at the National Federation of the Blind, Steven Booth tests out a ballot marking machine with a keypad with Braille-embossed navigation buttons and an audio headset. At left is Hardwick Spencer, the trainer with Election Systems & Software, the company which is leasing the equipment to the State of Maryland. At right is Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh.

The National Federation of the Blind has filed a federal lawsuit against the Maryland Board of Elections, alleging blind voters are being discriminated against at the ballot box.

The National Federation of the Blind of Maryland and three individual voters ― Joel Zimba and Ruth Sager of Baltimore and Marie Cobb of Catonsville ― say in a suit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court that they and other blind voters are being denied their right to cast a secret ballot at the polls as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.


At issue is how Maryland accommodates voters who are blind. Since 2016, the state has maintained two voting options: a default option of paper ballots, which blind voters cannot use, and a voting machine accessible to blind voters that electronically marks their choices and then prints paper ballots.

But the machines, called Ballot Marking Devices, print a paper ballot that is different in shape and size than the default paper ballots most voters use. “Thus, when only one voter uses the [Ballot Marking Device] in her precinct, her ballot becomes easily identifiable, destroying the secrecy of her vote,” the lawsuit states.


Moreover, because so few voters use the Ballot Marking Devices, poll workers are often not familiar with how to operate them, causing problems and complications for voters with disabilities.

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“Maryland’s use of dual voting systems, therefore, renders the lesser used system an inferior voting option for those who must use the [Ballot Marking Devices] to vote independently,” the National Federation of the Blind wrote in the suit.

The plaintiffs say the suit’s goal is to force the Maryland Board of Election to make the Ballot Marking Devices the default voting option for all Marylanders. To date, in an effort to protect the privacy of blind voters’ ballots, elections officials have agreed to increase the minimum number of voters required to use the Ballot Marking Devices from two to five per precinct.

Jessica Paulie Weber, attorney for the plaintiffs, said the State Board of Elections doesn’t regularly enforce its own rules and, during the 2018 election, no votes were required via Ballot Marking Devices at many precincts.

“We’ve been hearing a lot about election security in the news and for good reason,” she said. “But election security is not at odds with equal voting rights. They shouldn’t be pitted against each other.”

The National Federation of the Blind of Maryland has more than 2,000 members.

The suit is the latest salvo in a long-running dispute over how Maryland treats blind voters at the polls. In 2014, the National Federation of the Blind sued Maryland election officials, charging that their decision not to approve a system that would make it easier for disabled people to cast absentee ballots privately violates federal law.

A representative of the Maryland Board of Elections did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.