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Eliminating touch screen voting discriminates against the blind, advocacy group says

Eliminating touch screen voting discriminates against the blind, advocacy group says

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Bruce Franks Wins Missouri 78th District House seat revote

Bruce Franks Jr. celebrates his victory in the Missouri 78th District House seat special election as he stands on a bar at Yaquis on Cherokee Street and thanks his supporters on Friday, Sept. 16, 2016. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS • The St. Louis Election Board on Wednesday asked an appeals court to modify its ruling on absentee voting so that touch-screen machines can be used by those who are blind.

The request comes after the Election Board received a letter from an attorney for the Missouri Council of the Blind, arguing that limiting voting to paper ballots was a violation of three federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act. The motion filed by the Election Board’s attorney comes a day after absentee voting began in St. Louis and throughout Missouri for the general election.

“Since federal law supersedes state law ... the rights ensured by these acts must be given effect,” said attorney John J. Ammann, who also is a law professor at St. Louis University.

Ammann wrote the letter on behalf of Christopher Gray, executive director of the Missouri Council of the Blind, after the Missouri Court of Appeals upheld a decision by a circuit judge that all absentee ballots cast must be placed into a sealed envelope.

The lack of envelopes accompanying absentee ballots cast in-person at the Election Board office was the crux of Circuit Judge Rex Burlison’s decision to call for a do-over election between Bruce Franks Jr. and Penny Hubbard in their Aug. 2 Democratic primary race for state representative.

Franks, the newcomer, received more votes on the day of the primary election, but the large number of absentee ballots cast for incumbent Hubbard put her over the top. Franks sued for a new election, saying there were absentee ballot irregularities that could have affected the outcome of the election. In the do-over election on Sept. 16, Franks won by a 3-to-1 margin.

In his motion, Election Board attorney David Sweeney asked the appeals court to modify its Sept. 13 ruling.

“The Board respectfully suggests the following sentence: ‘This Opinion does not bar the use of touch-screen absentee ballot voting without the use of envelopes for persons who appear in person to vote absentee and who demonstrate that a disability prevents them from voting using a paper ballot but would be able to vote using a touch-screen voting machine.’”

In a story published Monday regarding the statewide effect of Burlison’s ruling, Boone County Clerk Wendy S. Noren agreed that her office must offer visually impaired voters a means to fill out their ballots in private because federal law trumps state law. She allows anyone with a disability to use a machine for absentee voting at the county clerk’s office leading up to the election — but that’s the only exception.

Everyone else puts their ballot in an envelope.

“The federal law doesn’t require it (to be available) for everybody,” Noren said. Only twice in the past decade have voters with disabilities requested electronic voting, she said.

Sweeney said an appellate court clarification is necessary “so it is clear the board may proceed with the use of the touch-screen machines for voters requiring electronic assistance.”

Voting irregularities were detailed in a Post-Dispatch investigation Aug. 31. Secretary of State Jason Kander called the findings “very troubling,” and the problems highlighted are part of an investigation by Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce’s office. 

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Doug Moore is a former reporter for the P-D. Currently, policy director for St. Louis County Council.

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