Judge: NC voters with disabilities can choose who help them

July 12, 2022 GMT

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A federal judge has blocked North Carolina laws that greatly restrict who can help people with disabilities request absentee ballots, fill them out and return them.

A disabled person needing help to vote by mail can now seek assistance from anyone they choose, not just from a close relative or legal guardian as state law has limited, the State Board of Elections told county election officials after the decision filed Monday by U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle.

Boyle declared that such restraints in state law conflict with the federal Voting Rights Act, which allows people who are blind, can’t read or write, or have a disability to pick whomever they wish to assist them with voting, other than the voter’s employer or union.

The elimination of the state’s restrictions applies to all citizens with such disabilities, and not just the thousands who reside in hospitals, clinics or nursing homes, Boyle ruled in a lawsuit filed last September against the state board by the nonprofit Disability Rights North Carolina.

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“Voting is a fundamental right in this country, and these barriers not only violated federal law, they effectively denied the dignity, autonomy and humanity of disabled people by preventing their full participation in voting,” Disability Rights North Carolina CEO Virginia Knowlton Marcus said in a news release Tuesday. “We are gratified to see these barriers come down.”

Such restrictions in state law were designed in part to protect vulnerable voters from being manipulated by facility operators or party activists to vote for certain candidates.

But “facility staff are often the only reliable assistants available to an individual with a disability living in a facility and are often residents’ most consistent and trusted source of assistance,” the Disability Rights lawsuit said. Receiving assistance from near relatives or guardians became more difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic as visitations were restricted.

County boards already allow “multipartisan assistance teams” to enter nursing and rest homes and help residents. Voters with disabilities can still request such teams, State Board of Elections attorney Katelyn Love wrote in guidance to state boards late Monday.

State laws prohibiting certain people from assisting absentee voters who are not disabled and live in hospitals, rest homes or nursing homes will remain enforceable, Love said, including nursing home owners and workers, elected officials and candidates. It’s a felony for owners of hospitals, clinics, nursing homes or rest homes to provide absentee ballot assistance.

Although North Carolina law prevents an employer or union representative from assisting an in-person voter with a disability or who is illiterate, that prohibition doesn’t apply to an absentee voter, state board spokesperson Pat Gannon wrote in an email. The board interprets the Voting Rights Act as allowing, but not requiring, a state to allow such assistance, he said.

The rule changes will be posted to the state board’s website, but it’s too late in the election cycle to alter printed materials, she said. Absentee ballots are currently being accepted for July 26 elections in some localities. The general election is Nov. 8.

Lisa Grafstein, a Disability Rights attorney who filed the lawsuit, said Tuesday that other laws remain to punish those who seek to exploit people with disabilities in their voting.