Voters file through the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor to cast their ballots on Nov. 8. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Paul Fink is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maine, and Nicholas Giudice is a professor of spatial computing at the University of Maine. This column reflects their views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. They are members of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

Maine’s development of remote voting for people with disabilities is one of the many unseen benefits of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Casting a private ballot without help from someone else is a fundamental right in the United States. This right is guaranteed to all voters, including people with disabilities who would otherwise require assistance. For people with print disabilities (e.g., people who are blind or visually impaired), the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Help America Vote Act require that polling places offer voting machines that can be accessed without the use of vision.

However, many people with disabilities experience transportation challenges that make it difficult or impossible to travel to the polls. As the oldest state in the country with a growing population of folks who have a visual impairment or no longer drive, Maine is uniquely positioned to benefit from easier ways to vote. Fortunately, we’re leading the way to address this challenge by being one of the first states to offer an accessible absentee ballot system.

Faced by surging COVID-19 cases, Gov. Janet Mills issued guidance in the spring of 2020 encouraging absentee voting in the state primary election (held July 14) and in the national election (held Nov. 3). This presented a quandary for many people in the state who are unable to read paper ballots: either receive assistance when filling out the ballot at home (therefore forfeiting the right to cast a private ballot) or risk traveling to the polling place (consider that many people with visual impairment rely on public busses).

Another option did exist, however, in the form of electronic ballots. Electronic absentee ballots allow a voter to fill out their ballot on a computer and cast their vote to the Maine Bureau of Elections directly. This system had long been used by Maine’s overseas military personnel, but it was not yet available to the voters back at home who would benefit. As is too often the case, a lawsuit was the source of change.  

Disability Rights Maine, on behalf of a group of Maine voters with visual impairment, sued then-Secretary of State Matt Dunlap to provide a system for accessible and independent voting via electronic absentee ballots. The state was receptive and worked with advocates to create an online portal where ballots could be accessed without vision using screen-readers and text-to-speech software. As a result, on Oct. 2, 2020, Maine became one of only a few states that had developed a fully accessible electronic absentee ballot voting system.

Last week’s election marked the second opportunity for people with print disabilities to use Maine’s new electronic implementation of absentee ballots. This contributed to Maine voters casting an unprecedented number of absentee votes in a gubernatorial election, a whopping 252,000 or nearly 30 percent of registered voters.

Those who voted remotely might have noticed a new mechanism to monitor the status of absentee votes: Maine’s absentee ballot tracking service. This service, which enables voters to track when their vote was delivered and if it was accepted, came as a direct result of the work done to enable accessible voting in the state.

The measures taken to enable accessibility are worth the effort, as they have net effects for democracy as a whole. By allowing hundreds of thousands of Mainers to track the progress of their votes, Disability Rights Maine and its advocates greatly improved election transparency with immeasurable impacts on voter trust in what continues to be described as our “fragile” democracy, which is now that much less fragile.