State, advocacy group reach deal on blind voters

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A deal finalized over the weekend will allow blind voters to fill out ballots secretly at home, putting an end to a broader legal tangle over Florida’s vote-by-mail processes.

The deal, finalized Sunday by the Florida Council of the Blind and Secretary of State Laurel Lee, will require five counties -- Miami-Dade, Nassau, Orange, Pinellas and Volusia -- to implement a program allowing blind and print-impaired voters to fill out ballots online.

The agreement also requires statewide implementation of the process by March 2022.

The five counties agreed to have the system in time for the Nov. 3 elections, according to Florida Council of the Blind lawyer Matthew Dietz.

“Voting by secret ballot is essential to the integrity of the electoral process as it allows voters to cast their ballot without fear or intimidation,” Dietz said in a prepared statement Monday.

The agreement was finalized on the 30th anniversary of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, Dietz noted.

More than 500,000 Floridians are blind, and hundreds of thousands of others are print-impaired, he said.

“For my clients who are blind, and those with other print disabilities who need to use technology to complete a ballot, a paper ballot did not allow them the same benefits and privileges of every other citizen. This settlement provides the means to do so,” Dietz said.

The issue was part of a broader legal case in which the groups Priorities USA and Dream Defenders and other plaintiffs sought to make changes to help expand voting by mail. The plaintiffs sought to extend a deadline for mail-in ballots to be returned to elections supervisors and wanted free postage for absentee ballots. They also challenged a provision in Florida law restricting paid workers from collecting mail-in ballots. But the day before a trial was slated to begin last week, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle signed off on a settlement.

Under the settlement, Lee will “educate” and “encourage” county supervisors of elections about a variety of vote-by-mail procedures that were at the heart of the case. For example, the state’s top elections official will be required to educate supervisors about pre-paid postage for mail-in ballots.

The settlement also will encourage local elections officials “to maximize the use of drop boxes for vote-by-mail ballots” and to inform voters about the availability of the ballot drop-off sites.