By Henry K. Lee
SF Chronicle, October 17, 2013
In what advocates for the blind called a groundbreaking decision, a federal judge in San Francisco said visually impaired voters have the right under federal antidiscrimination laws to cast ballots independently rather than with the assistance of a third party.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero issued the ruling while considering a lawsuit filed by the California Council of the Blind and five blind voters in Alameda County who encountered problems with the audio and tactile features on the county’s voting machines during the Nov. 6 election.
As a result, they were forced to dictate votes to others instead of voting privately.
The county argued that the plaintiffs were given an equal opportunity to vote. But in a 23-page ruling issued Wednesday that allowed part of the suit to proceed, Spero wrote, “Even if blind and visually impaired voters can communicate their votes with the assistance of third parties, they certainly cannot ‘enjoy the benefits of’ the secret ballot afforded to most other voters.”
Spero said voting in private was “one of the central features of voting which must be accorded so long as the modification is not an undue burden or a fundamental alteration of the service.”
The judge acknowledged that other courts had found that the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – both of which prohibit discrimination based on disability – did not require government agencies to provide voting machines accessible to visually impaired voters. However, Spero said the technology had improved.
Tim Dupuis, Alameda County’s interim registrar of voters, noted Thursday that the judge had not ruled on the merits of the case.
“Alameda County supports the blind and visually impaired voters’ ability to vote privately and independently,” Dupuis said. “We have spent millions of dollars purchasing voting equipment that gives the blind and visually impaired the choice to vote privately and independently. This equipment is deployed to all polling locations for every election.”
Attorneys with Disability Rights Advocates, who represent the voters who sued, predicted the ruling would have national implications. They are seeking no monetary damages from Alameda County but hope to compel the county to make any necessary fixes to their voting system.
When functioning properly, machines for the blind read the on-screen ballot information aloud via headphones and allow voters to independently input ballot choices using tactile controls.
Plaintiff Larry Bunn, who is blind, said in a written statement Thursday, “I have been registered to vote in Alameda County since 1999 and I have never been able to independently and privately vote. I am so happy that the federal court vindicated us blind voters. I am very thrilled about this decision and I cannot wait to vote.”
Henry K. Lee is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org