Advocates for blind sue Maryland election officials

The National Federation of the Blind has sued Maryland election officials, charging that their April decision not to approve a system that would make it easier for disabled people to cast absentee ballots privately violates federal law.

The Baltimore-based federation filed suit this week asking the U.S. District Court to order the State Board of Elections to provide that technology in time for the June 24 primary election.


"The right to a secret ballot that can be filled out privately and independently is just as important to people with disabilities as it is for other voters," said federation spokesman Chris Danielson.

The board decided April 24 to overrule its professional staff's recommendation that it allow the use of ballot-marking technology, an electronic tool that allows a blind person or someone who doesn't have use of their arms to mark their absentee ballots on their computers before printing them out and sending them in. Special audio systems can help disabled voters who go to the polls, but some blind and other disabled voters say they have had to ask for help in casting an absentee ballot.


Board members were swayed by arguments by some computer scientists and ballot security advocates that the system has shortcomings that would open the door to widespread voter fraud.

The decision outraged advocates for the disabled because they had worked with the elections board staff for months to help develop the technology.

The system the state rejected was not true Internet voting because a paper ballot would still have had to be sent to the board. However, the system would have allowed voters to download blank ballots to their computers and fill them out using programs designed to help them vote. Three Maryland voters with different disabilities joined the federation in bringing the suit and seeking an injunction so they can vote absentee in the primary. They are Melissa Riccobono, who is blind and heads the group's Maryland chapter; Kenneth Capone of Elkridge, who has cerebral palsy and can't use his arms or legs; and Janice Toothman of Bowie, who is blind and has impaired hearing.

The lawsuit charges that the board's decision deprives each of the opportunity to vote "privately and independently." That, the suit says, is a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act and another federal law.

Linda H. Lamone, the election board administrator and the lead defendant in the case, said she could not comment on the suit.

When the board fell two votes short of the four needed to certify the system, advocates for ballot security were delighted. Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor and founder of its Center for Health and Homeland Security, said at the time that "sanity prevailed." He had warned that if adopted, Maryland's voting system would have been the most subject to fraud in the country."

Cathy Kelleher, president of Election Integrity Maryland, said she hadn't seen the suit but backed the board's refusal to certify the system.

"Until it's made safe for everyone's use, there is no reason to rush into this," she said.


Riccobono said she's not willing to wait..

"I understand the concerns, but I also understand that everything has some type of risk," she said. "I'm concerned that if we wait until something's completely safe, we're never going to get there."

Riccobono said she had to have friends mark her ballot in the past and hasn't been comfortable with it.

"That's my business who I vote for," she said.