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Maryland settles lawsuit over machines used by blind voters

The state of Maryland will pay $230,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by visually impaired voters and the National Federation of the Blind that alleged the state’s electronic voting machines compromised voter secrecy and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Three voters and the federation sued the state in federal court two years ago, detailing problems with the electronic devices, which are often used by voters with vision impairments or other disabilities. Since 2016, most Maryland voters have used paper ballots marked with a pen. Before that, all voters used touch screen machines.

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The lawsuit contended that in some instances, election judges were poorly trained or that the voting machines, known as “ballot marking devices,” were inoperable.

And the lawsuit noted that the ballot marking device prints out a ballot that’s a different size and shape than the paper ballots used by other voters. That means that if only one voter used the ballot marking devices at a voting location, their ballot could be identified among the rest.

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After months of settlement negotiations, the state and the plaintiffs reached an agreement in August. The Maryland Board of Public Works, a three-member panel that oversees state spending, voted unanimously and without discussion Wednesday to approve the settlement and $230,000 payment.

Mark Riccobono, president of the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind, said that while Maryland isn’t the worst offender when it comes to access for blind voters, it has room for improvement.

“We work hard to make Maryland the flagship for what other states should be doing in voting,” he said in an interview. “Maryland’s not at the top and that’s where we want Maryland to be.”

Steven Booth tests out a ballot marking machine with a keypad with Braille-embossed navigation buttons and an audio headset in this 2016 file photo. 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.
Steven Booth tests out a ballot marking machine with a keypad with Braille-embossed navigation buttons and an audio headset in this 2016 file photo. 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. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

Riccobono said that while he feels the concerns of people with disabilities are heard by some “champions” in the state legislature and at the elections board, there are still flaws in the voting process that disadvantage blind and disabled voters.

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“Unfortunately, a number of decisions have been made that really take away the privacy and independence of blind voters, one of them being the real limited use of ballot marking devices,” he said.

Under the settlement, the Maryland State Board of Elections agreed to: improve election judge training, ensure at least half of all polling sites have two ballot marking devices, offer both paper ballots and ballot marking devices “neutrally to all voters” and work to have at least 10 voters at each site use the ballot marking devices.

The state also must pay $2,000 to the National Federation of the Blind to produce an educational video about working with blind people at the polls. The video will be posted on the state website and it may be used as supplemental material for election judge training.

And the next time that the state works on a new voting system, the state agreed to make sure that hand-filled ballots and those made by ballot marking devices are the same size and shape.

The $230,000 payment will be used to cover some of the federation’s legal fees, Riccobono said. The federation is represented by attorneys from the Baltimore firm Brown, Goldstein & Levy.

The Maryland State Board of Elections issued a statement saying it was “pleased” to have reached a settlement.

“Election officials will now begin to implement the additional equipment, training, monitoring, and other requirements called for by the agreement, and we look forward to working with the National Federation of the Blind and other organizations to continue to improve the voting experience of all Maryland voters in upcoming elections,” the statement said.

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