By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
Advocates for Florida voters who are blind or vision-impaired are trying to raise their profile in a federal mail-in-voting case. They say their right to vote is at risk despite an easy fix.
The advocates say there’s a readily available software solution, and federal money to fund it, but statewide elections officials won’t approve the software—with a high-stakes presidential election only five months away.
Civil rights organizations are suing Gov. Ron DeSantis, Secretary of State Laurel Lee and county election supervisors in Tallahassee federal court over what they call impediments to mail-in voting. The lead plaintiff is the Dream Defenders, a group of young, multi-racial activists that organized after the Trayvon Martin killing in 2012.
They want U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle to order the state to discard ballot-return deadlines and laws that limit who may collect ballots and take them to local election offices. Because the coronavirus will suppress in-person voting, vote-by-mail will be the only option for many Floridians, the civil rights groups argue.
DeSantis and Republican leaders are defending existing election laws. They say Democrats are using the spread of Covid-19 as a cover to get rid of voting laws they don’t like, inviting fraud.
Many blind Floridians
On June 2 lawyer Matthew Dietz asked Hinkle to let his blind and vision-impaired clients assert their interest in the case through a procedure called intervention. The judge granted his request on Wednesday. The intervenors are the nonprofit Florida Council of the Blind and five individuals.
The five stand for many. In 2017 Florida had more than 250,000 sight-impaired residents of voting age, according to the most recent data from the American Federation for the Blind.
Because vision-impaired voters must rely on poll workers, they’re forced to sacrifice privacy and independence. And the coronavirus pandemic makes traveling to polling places more dangerous.
“The intervenors are all people who are at very high risk for COVID,” said Dietz, a Miami disability-rights specialist.
The software Dietz’s clients want is made by Democracy Live, a Seattle-based company, and it would cost $1 million to $1.2 million to install the system statewide, according to court papers. The U.S. military bought the software to help overseas personnel vote.
Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles has used the Democracy Live software, and he’s testing it for the Aug. 18 primary. “It’s another option for a blind or sight-impaired voter in Florida,” he said.
‘I like to have died’
Dietz’s client is James Kracht, immediate past president of the Florida Council of the Blind. He has been working on this issue since 2000. Then a supervising lawyer with the Miami-Dade County Attorney’s Office, he agreed to test voting accommodations for the blind at the Government Center in downtown Miami.
When he signed in, Kracht said he was entitled to two witnesses and would need their help in the voting booth. Only one was assigned, so he asked for a second poll worker. The assigned poll worker took offense.
“He screamed across a lobby filled with 200 people, ‘He wants another person! He doesn’t trust me!’ ’’ Kracht said. “These were all people that I worked with and I like to have died.”
“One of the most horrible experiences of my life” turned Kracht into an activist. “It lit the fire and I’ve been working on this, moving for improvement, change and equal access, ever since.”
He succeeded in 2002, when a law he’d lobbied for directed state election officials to work with county elections supervisors and the disability community. They were tasked with developing procedures and technologies “that will allow all voters to cast a secret, independent and verifiable vote-by-mail ballot without the assistance of another person.”
Two years ago, Kracht met with Maria Matthews, director of the state elections division, to discuss funding for the Democracy Live software. At that time it was available from the Help America Vote Act.
No help from elections boss
Congress recently passed pandemic emergency legislation that includes $400 million to facilitate remote-voting strategies. Kracht offered his help to the elections division, but said that Matthews stopped returning his calls after May 20.
Meanwhile, most county elections supervisors are waiting for the state to certify the software and guarantee reimbursement for installing it.
Dietz and Kracht said they don’t understand the reason for the delay. Rather than continuing to wait, they went to court.
Matthews did not respond to emailed questions from Florida Bulldog.
Kracht said if Hinkle doesn’t allow his group into the main voting rights case, they’ll consider filing a separate lawsuit. They aren’t going away, he promised.
“I want to see it happen,” Kracht said. “I want the blind and vision-impaired voters in Florida, if they choose to vote at home for COVID or any other reason, to have the right to do that.”