With attention focused on absentee voting because of the coronavirus, one community underserved by the absentee voting system is finally getting policies they need.
LANSING, MI — For Michigan’s blind residents to cast absentee ballots, they have to tell someone how they intend to vote. But now, thanks to an agreement between Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and the National Federation of the Blind, they’ll have access to special absentee ballots usually reserved for members of the military or Americans overseas.
Each Michigan polling place has a Voter Assist Terminal to help blind voters mark their ballots. But for blind Michiganders who want to vote absentee, that hasn’t been an option.
Blind Michiganders’ underlying voting problem was brought into sharp focus when the coronavirus pandemic made absentee voting the safest course of action. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has strongly encouraged voting absentee in Tuesday’s elections as The ‘Gander reported, and in-person voting during a pandemic proved to be a total disaster in Wisconsin. Absentee voting is key to maintaining democracy in the crisis.
As a result of the lawsuit Powell v. Benson, which is still ongoing, blind voters will now have access to special absentee ballots usually reserved for members of the military or Americans overseas. The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting system allows blank absentee ballots to be sent electronically to a voter, who marks it and submits it back to their clerk by mail.
This allows a blind voter to use electronic tools to assist in filling out an absentee ballot. Ballots filled out with the assistance of a screen reader will be accepted, the Bureau of Elections said in a statement. Requests for ballots for the visually impared can be made online here, and completed ballots must be postmarked Tuesday.
But this is just an emergency solution to a longer-standing problem exposed by the coronavirus pandemic, and one that will still exist long after the pandemic fades into memory without some systemic reform. But Benson is optimistic that a long-term solution can be reached.
“I am confident we will continue our work to successfully identify and implement a long-term solution as well,” she said.
The lawsuit was brought by the law firm Nyman Turkish on Powell’s behalf. Jason Turkish, managing partner at the firm, is a blind Michigander himself.
“People will get COVID because they cannot vote from home,” he told MLive.
That’s born out by the in-person voting in Wisconsin. The New York Times reports minimally seven people got coronavirus while voting because of the state’s insistence on voting in-person. This was part of the calculation made by Whitmer in her focus on absentee voting.
But thanks to all the attention this conflict has garnered on absentee voting, the troubles of low-vision Michiganders voting absentee have come into the spotlight. And the long-term fix of that problem can be the rare good legacy of COVID-19.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.