WASHINGTON, D.C. — On March 9, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana issued a preliminary injunction that will expand voting access in the state’s May primaries for voters who are blind or have print disabilities that prevent them from filling out ballots on their own. Previously, Indiana law required voters with print disabilities who sought to vote with an at-home absentee ballot to make an appointment with a “traveling board” — election officials who visit voters’ homes to assist them with filling out their ballot. Now, Indiana voters with print disabilities “may complete their mail-in ballots with the assistance of an individual of their own choosing” for the state’s May primary, as long as the individual is not their employer or union representative.
This victory stems from a lawsuit brought in December 2020 by the American Council of the Blind of Indiana, the Indiana Protection and Advocacy Services Commission and three blind voters challenging the state’s limited absentee voting options for individuals with print disabilities. While Indiana law mandates that absentee ballots be made accessible to those with print disabilities, the reality is that voters with print disabilities “cannot personally mark their own paper ballot or sign the secrecy envelope without assistance,” leading the court to conclude that the “current absentee voting scheme does not provide an accessible absentee vote-from-home option for voters with print disabilities.” Because of this, the only way for voters with disabilities to vote in past elections was in the presence of the traveling board, which required setting up an appointment and filling out a ballot with elections officials present. This system caused at least one voter, a plaintiff in this lawsuit, to be disenfranchised in the 2020 election when the traveling board failed to show up and she was unable to vote using an alternative method. In granting the preliminary injunction, the judge held that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed in showing that “they are being denied access to absentee voting by mail on the basis of their disability” and the “Defendants have failed to provide a reasonable accommodation.” While the judge expressed that she is “gravely concerned about [these accessibility] issues and expects Defendants to increase their efforts to remedy those problems in advance of future elections,” she only granted narrow relief and did not order a complete overhaul of the absentee voting system for voters with print disabilities for the May 2022 primary to avoid any voter confusion close to an election. The case’s merits will continue to be litigated.