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Complaint to the Department of Justice regarding disability discrimination in Alabama’s absentee ballot program

After Alabama failed to provide an absentee voting program that is fully accessible to voters who are blind or have print disabilities, the Southern Poverty Law Center and its co-counsel filed an administrative complaint asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the program.

The complaint was filed on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind, the National Federation of the Blind of Alabama and individual complainants. It describes how during the 2020 election season these Alabamians were unable to cast ballots safely, privately and independently in person or by mail – a failure by the state that violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. As a result, these voters had to rely on a third party to assist with paper absentee applications and ballots or risk their health and the health of their loved ones by traveling to cast their vote in person on Election Day during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, although the state makes absentee ballot applications available electronically, they cannot be filled out electronically. Instead, they must be printed out, filled in by hand or typewriter, and delivered in person or by mail – a process that requires a blind voter or voter with a print disability (a person who cannot hold a pen without assistance) to be aided by a third party.

These voters also encountered difficulties when attempting to cast their absentee ballot early in person, a process that requires a ballot marking device. The complaint describes how Barbara Manuel, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Alabama, traveled to cast her absentee ballot early in person in Mobile after her driver helped her complete the initial absentee ballot application, which cannot be filled out electronically.

When she arrived at the location to cast her ballot, she was told the ballot marking device was not set up. After more than 30 minutes, the machine had yet to be successfully set up. Manuel was offered help with voting via paper absentee ballot. However, she wanted to vote privately and independently like other voters – and as protected under federal law. Manuel ultimately had to leave without casting her ballot that day because her driver could not continue waiting. She would have to cast her vote later, unlike thousands of Alabama voters who cast their absentee ballot early, in person and privately and independently during the 2020 general election.

As noted in the complaint, solutions are available for the state to implement an accessible absentee ballot program. For example, Voting Works, an electronic ballot delivery system, is already used by many states to provide accessible voting options, and electronic ballot delivery is a common tool used to accommodate military and overseas voters.

The complaint seeks the following remedies:

  • Accessible absentee voting via electronically fillable ballots for voters with disabilities.
  • Absentee voting applications accessible to voters with disabilities.
  • Ballot marking devices that are available, operable and ready to use for elections, including for in-person early absentee voting at county absentee election manager and registrar locations.
  • Election officials with the knowledge and expertise to set up, use and maintain accessible ballot marking devices during in-person early absentee voting and on Election Day.