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People with disabilities gain better ballot access in court ruling

An image of the top half of the NC absentee ballot request form.
Graphic by Charlie Smith

During the height of the pandemic, absentee ballots became an easy way for people to vote from the safety of their homes. For others, absentee ballots became an obstacle to being able to make their voices heard. Voters with disabilities have long faced barriers including state laws that among other things, prohibited voters with disabilities living in facilities like nursing homes from getting help with an absentee ballot from anyone but family or a legal guardian.

Lisa Grafstein has been working to break those barriers. Grafstein is litigation counsel with Disability Rights North Carolina. DRNC is the current protection and advocacy agency for the state and offers free legal services and other forms of advocacy and outreach in the disability community.

“A voter living in a nursing home, for example, might get help all day with everything in their daily life from staff in that facility, but when it came time to vote, the staff couldn’t help them” Grafstein explains. “That meant they couldn’t help them request a ballot online. It meant that they couldn’t help them fill out the ballot if they couldn’t fill it out. It meant that they couldn’t help them by witnessing the ballot, which is required for absentee balloting. It meant that they couldn’t help them put it in the mail,” she said.

Such restrictions were designed in part to protect vulnerable voters. But Grafstein says the law missed the mark, prompting the DRNC to file a lawsuit against the State Board of Elections.

People with disabilities are entitled to full dignity and full access to the ballot that all of us enjoy.
Lisa Grafstein

“I think what we miss in that is that people with disabilities are entitled to be treated equally and that means respecting their autonomy and dignity” she said. “It means that we don't assume that we can make better choices or exercise better judgement. It means that we make sure that people have opportunities to be supported for help but not to have their individual choices over ridden by someone else's choices. That's really what this lawsuit's about. It's what we at Disability Rights feel very strongly about.”

U.S. District Judge Terrance Boyle agreed and declared the state law violates the Federal Voting Rights Act.

“The ruling is effective immediately therefore anyone who needs assistance going forward who meets the terms of the order is now entitled to access assistance from the person of their choice” Grafstein said, “They can access assistance now and do so in the Fall as well.”

“Our overall goal was to ensure both the effect that people can vote without too many barriers, but also the important dignity effect, which people's rights are respected. We understand that people with disabilities are entitled to full dignity and full access to the ballot that all of us enjoy.”

The ruling went into effect in time for North Carolina’s July primary and run-off elections and is in place for the upcoming general election in November.

That was just one of many battles on the DRNC docket. According to Grafstein, an even bigger issue is the over-institutionalization of people with disabilities. This means that often people with disabilities will be placed in facilities such as nursing homes, psychiatric hospitals, or other assisted living rather than working towards them being able to live independently.

“That's been an issue that I think most people don't really know much about. We still have institutions where we house people with disabilities,” Grafstein said, “Under federal law, there is a requirement that if you can serve people in the community then you have to serve people in the community. Instead of requiring them to be institutionalized in order to get services.”

There currently is a case pending with the Department of Justice for people with mental and intellectual disabilities to be able to leave assisted living facilities.

“We will continue to work on those issues as a fundamental rights issue for people with disabilities,” Grafstein said.

Charlie Smith is a senior at UNC-Asheville, graduating in August 2022 with BA in Creative Writing, specializing in creative non-fiction.