Filed Date: June 8, 2022
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This case challenged Alabama’s accommodations for disabled voters.
The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama on June 8, 2022. by three plaintiffs, two of whom were blind. The third individual had “print disabilities” (any condition which makes it difficult to read, mark, or handle paper documents). The lone defendant was Alabama’s Secretary of State, John H. Merrill, designated as the “chief election official” under Alabama law. Plaintiffs alleged that Alabama’s absentee voting system, which is almost entirely by paper, makes individuals with certain disabilities forfeit their right to vote privately and independently because the current system forces them to rely on the assistance of another person to vote. Judge Corey Landon Maze was assigned to the case.
Represented by the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and private counsel, plaintiffs made two claims. First, they alleged violations of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under the ADA, no individual by reason of their disability can be denied an equal opportunity to engage in the services of a public entity. Plaintiffs claimed the only way to satisfy this requirement was by using a Remote Assessable Vote-By-Mail system (RAVNM). Many states, including Alabama, used similar systems in some form. When the complaint was filed, Alabama employed the system for military members and overseas voters. The second claim alleged violations of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits exclusion of individuals from a program receiving federal assistance, including any operations or instrumentalities of a state or local government, on the basis of a disability. Plaintiffs sought both injunctive and declaratory relief, in addition to attorneys’ fees and costs. They sought a permanent injunction both requiring the implementation of a remote electronic absentee system and explicitly preventing Alabama’s absentee voting system from violating the ADA or Rehabilitation Act. They also sought a declaration that Alabama has and will continue to violate both laws until they provide the aforementioned electronic system.
Alabama moved to dismiss on July 13, 2022, claiming plaintiffs both lacked standing and failed to state a proper claim. According to Alabama, plaintiffs lacked standing as they did not establish traceability or redressability for their alleged injuries. While Alabama’s Secretary of State is the “chief elections officer” under Alabama law, probate judges manage the absentee ballot system for each county, hampering the traceability of the plaintiffs’ injuries to the state’s policies. As for the alleged failure to state a claim, Alabama made four arguments. First, the ADA and Rehabilitation Act did not explicitly preempt Alabama election law. The Constitution conferred on states broad authority to regulate elections, including federal ones, meaning Congress must expressly state when they wish to preempt state election law. Second, neither the ADA nor Rehabilitation Act required Alabama to fundamentally alter its voting system. In both laws, Congress provided that programs did not need to be altered if such modifications would fundamentally change the nature of the service provided. Alabama argued that under state law, using a paper ballot is a key requirement for casting a valid vote. Alabama only incorporated an electronic system for military and overseas voters because federal law mandated it. Third, plaintiffs were able to vote and all three had voted in the past; their mere “preference” for a privately cast or electronic absent voting was not a requirement. They do have access to absentee voting. According to federal court precedent, third party assistance offers an equally effective means of casting a ballot. Finally, plaintiffs failed to allege in detail how they were discriminated against solely on disability.
This case is ongoing as of December 29, 2022.
Eric Gripp (12/29/2022)
See docket on RECAP: https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/65273636/the-national-federation-of-the-blind-of-alabama-v-merrill/
Last updated March 24, 2023, 3 a.m.
State / Territory: Alabama
Filing Date: June 8, 2022
Case Ongoing: Yes
Three registered voters in Alabama. Two were blind, the third had "print disabilities" (any condition which makes it difficult to read, mark, or handle paper documents).
Public Interest Lawyer: Yes
Filed Pro Se: No
Class Action Sought: No
Class Action Outcome: Not sought
State of Alabama (Montgomery, Montgomery), State
The Secretary of State of Alabama (Montgomery, Montgomery), State
Causes of Action:
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12111 et seq.
Prevailing Party: None Yet / None
Nature of Relief:
Source of Relief:
Voting: Physical/Effective Access
Disability (inc. reasonable accommodations)