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February 25, 2016
  Nat'l. Fed. of the Blind v. Lamone -- Fourth Circuit
Absentee Voting For All: Tool To Be Implemented That Will Assist Voters With Disabilities

Areas of Law: Disability Law

Issue Presented: Whether individuals with various disabilities were denied meaningful access to Maryland's absentee voting program in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (collectively "the Acts") because the state's absentee voting program requires voters to hand mark their ballots

Brief Summary: In a published opinion, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld the United States District Court for the District of Maryland's holding that Maryland's absentee voting program which requires voters to mark their ballots by hand, denies individuals with disabilities who cannot hand mark their ballots, meaningful access to absentee voting in violation of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act

Extended Summary: In Maryland, absentee voters can obtain their absentee ballots by mail, fax or by electronically downloading them. Voters who electronically download their absentee ballots must print out the hardcopy of the ballot, mark their selections by hand, sign the hardcopy and return the completed ballot to their local election board. For years, Maryland has been in the process of developing software, an online ballot marking tool ("the tool") that would allow absentee voters who electronically download their ballots to mark their choices electronically. The tool is compatible with various personal assistive devices that are used by people with various disabilities and would eliminate the need for people who are not able to hand mark their own ballots to find individuals to mark their ballots for them. The tool was used in a limited capacity in Maryland's 2012 primary and general elections. Although improvements continued to be made to the tool, it was not certified for general use by Maryland's State Board of Elections.

In 2014, the National Federation of the Blind and three individual Maryland voters with disabilities ("Plaintiffs") filed suit against the State Administrator of Elections and the five Board members ("Board") in their official capacities. The suit alleged that Maryland's absentee voting program violated the Acts as hand marking a hardcopy of a ballot without the assistance of another individual is impossible for voters who have various disabilities. Therefore, Plaintiffs alleged that the program deprived these individuals of meaningful access to absentee voting. Plaintiffs sought declaratory judgment and an injunction requiring the Board to make the tool available for use in the 2014 general election.

Prior to trial, several similarly situated individuals who were asserting similar claims though seeking an injunction to bar the tool's certification, filed a motion to intervene in the case. The district court permitted the putative intervenors to participate in the trial but denied their motion that would have allowed them to assert independent claims against the Board. In a bench trial, the district court held that because Maryland's absentee voting program did not allow Plaintiffs to mark their ballots without assistance, Plaintiffs had been denied meaningful access to absentee voting in violation of the Acts. The district court entered a permanent injunction prohibiting the Board from violating the Plaintiffs' rights and required the Board to make the tool available for use by the 2014 general election. The Board appealed.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's finding that the proper way to define the scope of the relevant public program was as Maryland's absentee voting program and not as Maryland's general voting program. The court based this finding on the fact that the Acts prohibit public entities from denying the benefits of public programs based on disability. The court also explained that the Supreme Court has suggested that courts should proceed cautiously when defining a public program as a definition that is too general may overlook the difficulties that people with disabilities may have in terms of accessing specific government services.

The Fourth Circuit also affirmed the district court's three core legal conclusions. The Fourth Circuit upheld the district court's conclusion that Plaintiffs were denied meaningful access to absentee voting by being required to rely on the assistance of others. The court explained that requiring individuals to vote with the assistance of others provides these individuals with a voting experience that is inferior and unequal to that afforded to everyone else. The Fourth Circuit also upheld the district court's conclusion that the tool is a reasonable accommodation that would give individuals with disabilities access to absentee voting. The court explained that the tool is reasonably secure, private, accessible to voters with disabilities and would likely not be a substantial cost or implementation burden as it has already been developed and implemented without apparent incident. The Fourth Circuit also upheld the district court's conclusion that the tool would not fundamentally alter Maryland's absentee voting program as use of the tool is not unreasonably at odds with the state's voting apparatus certification procedure.

The Fourth Circuit concluded its analysis by articulating that there is no evidence that the Board acted with discriminatory intent in implementing its absentee voting program. Moreover, Maryland's decision to allow all of its voters to vote absentee, provides voters with a unique and uncommon benefit.

To read the full text of this opinion, please click here.

Panel: Judges Gregory, Duncan, and Floyd

Argument Date: 10/28/15

Date of Issued Opinion: 02/09/16

Docket Number: Case No. 14-2001

Decided:
Affirmed by published opinion.

Case Alert Author: Simone Chukwuezi, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel:
ARGUED: Julia Doyle Bernhardt, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF MARYLAND, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellants. Jessica Paulie Weber, BROWN, GOLDSTEIN & LEVY, LLP, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellees. Thomas Evans Chandler, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Washington, D.C., for Amicus United States of America. ON BRIEF: Brian E. Frosh, Attorney General of Maryland, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF MARYLAND, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellants. Daniel F. Goldstein, BROWN, GOLDSTEIN & LEVY, LLP, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellees. Amy F. Robertson, CIVIL RIGHTS EDUCATION AND ENFORCEMENT CENTER, Denver, Colorado; Alyssa R. Fieo, MARYLAND DISABILITY LAW CENTER, Baltimore, Maryland, for Amici Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, Maryland Disability Law Center, ADAPT Maryland, American Civil Liberties Union, Arc Maryland, Arc of the United States, Association of Assistive Technology Act Programs, disAbility Law Center for Virginia, Disability Rights Advocates, Disability Rights Bar Association, Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, Disability Rights North Carolina, Freedom Center, IMAGE Center for People with Disabilities, Independence Now, Judge 3 David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, League for People with Disabilities, Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council, Maryland Disabilities Forum, National Association of the Deaf, National Disability Rights Network, On Our Own of Maryland, Paralyzed Veterans of America, People on the Go, Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, Southern Maryland Center for Independent Living, United Spinal Association, and West Virginia Advocates. Vanita Gupta, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Mark L. Gross, Civil Rights Division, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Washington, D.C., for Amicus United States of America.

Author of Opinion:
Judge Floyd

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 02/25/2016 04:23 PM     4th Circuit  

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