ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE: A victory for voting rights during perilous times

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Terre Haute Tribune-Star

Victories for voting access happen far too rarely in Indiana.

Thus, a federal judge’s ruling (March 8) in support of more private, independent voting for sight-impaired Hoosiers packs significance and deserves praise.

U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson struck down Indiana’s mandate that blind and low-vision Hoosiers must cast their absentee votes with the assistance of a traveling board. The judge ruled that Indiana make traveling board-assisted voting optional for sight-impaired voters seeking to vote absentee by mail in the upcoming May 3 primary.

Magnus-Stinson’s ruling allows those voters to complete mail-in ballots with the assistance of an individual of their own choosing. That person cannot be a voter’s employer or union officer, or an agent representing their employer or union officer. The judge also ruled state election officials must notify county election boards that they must accept mail-in absentee ballots from blind voters.

That choice rightly gives blind or low-vision Hoosiers greater privacy in voting. A lawsuit filed in December 2020 by a trio of plaintiffs that includes Terre Haute resident Kristin Fleschner led to the judge’s ruling. The plaintiffs alleged that Indiana’s voting system violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and deprives them the right to vote independently and privately.

Indiana continues to hold the dubious distinction having one of the nation’s most restrictive set of voting laws. Its traveling board rule for disabled voters has been considered the most restrictive in America.

Fleschner, a Harvard Law School graduate, is blind and also an organ transplant recipient, which makes her more vulnerable to complications if she contracted COVID. She experienced the harshness of Indiana’s voting laws personally.

She had to make an appointment with a traveling board to vote absentee in the 2020 election, when the pandemic raged and COVID-19 vaccines were months away from distribution. When the traveling board members arrived, they asked Fleschner’s mother to complete her ballot. That tactic essentially defeated the purpose of the board’s visit to Fleschner’s home.

“Voting by traveling board in 2020 was not only inconvenient, but also I was not able to vote privately and independently,” said Fleschner, an advocate for people with disabilities. “(The March 8) order bodes very well for our lawsuit and our request to make absentee voting private, independent and accessible to all people.”

The ruling was not a complete victory. The judge denied the plaintiffs’ motion to require the state to implement a remote-accessible system for the May 3 Indiana primary. Such a system allows disabled voters to download a ballot, which the voter can read and mark with their own assistive technology device. The voter then prints their selections and returns the ballot to the county elections office.

Magnus-Stinson ruled Fleschner and the other plaintiffs — joined by the Indiana Protection and Advocacy Services Commission and the American Council of the Blind of Indiana — can file a renewed motion for the remote-accessible system to be implemented in elections beyond the May 3 primary.

The plaintiffs and advocates for sight-impaired Hoosiers will persist with their cause, determined to get answers on how they can vote. They want the Secretary of State’s office to know “we’re going to continue wanting to vote, and it’s not going away until we have it fixed and have the ability to submit the vote privately and independently,” Fleschner said.

Their quest should not require a protracted battle with the state. Indiana officials should take the proper steps to implement remote-accessible voting for blind and low-vision Hoosiers.

Indiana lawmakers have increasingly tightened restrictions on voting through the past 15 years. The Republican super-majority thinly veils those barriers as protections against voter fraud, which is rare and not problematic in Indiana or elsewhere in the U.S. Even amid those unnecessarily strict rules, Indiana officials should make sure that sight-impaired folks should — at the very least — be able to cast votes privately, just as other voters do.