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The Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind is committed to making sure every vote counts

Lou Ann Blake was shocked to learn she was blind.

“My biggest fear was that people would tell me I couldn’t do stuff,” she said.

She loved horseback riding and was afraid people would say it was unsafe. She feared not being able to drive.

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Now the director of programs for the National Federation of the Blind, headquartered in Baltimore, Blake, 63, suffers from retinitis pigmentosa that led to the loss of most of her vision in her early 30s.

In the beginning she lived her life as if she were not blind. That changed after a law professor heard a crime committed by a young man was blamed on his parents’ blindness.

“The fact that his parents were blind had nothing to do with him committing a crime,” she said. “I realized in that moment that I needed to be with people like me.”

Blake carried that identification into her role at NFB, the advocacy group for blind people founded in 1940.

One of their most influential projects was protecting voting rights for the blind.

Blake said blind voters are not treated equally if they vote in person.

Blind voters can cast their ballots during early voting and in person on Nov. 8 using paper ballots or ballot-marking devices, Blake said.

Ballot marking devices use a directional pad and headphones to annotate the ballot. Blake said the current system violated the privacy and anonymity of blind voters. While the ballot-marking device allows blind voters to vote independently, it prints a long, thin ballot, which differs from the traditional one and could allow blind voters’ ballots to be identified, she said.

Blake played a key role in a 2021 lawsuit urging Maryland to change those practices. The state agreed to pay $230,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by NFB and blind voters alleging that the state’s electronic voting machines undermine voter confidentiality and violate the law on Americans using violations of disabilities.

Blake said she helped negotiate parts of the settlement, including requiring the state to pay NFB $2,000 to produce an instructional video for poll workers. The video entitled “Empowering the Blind Voter” can be viewed on YouTube.

The state also agreed to install two ballot marking devices in at least half of all polling stations, invite all voters to use them and ensure at least 10 do so.

All Maryland polling stations will have at least two ballot marking devices during early voting and Election Day, said Nikki Charlson, assistant administrator of the Maryland State Board of Elections.

Data from the 2022 primary shows that 33.6% of voters who voted in person used a ballot marking device to make their choice, she added.

Despite this, Ronza Othman, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland, said the total number of blind voters in Maryland is unknown because disclosing a disability is not a requirement for voting.

Joel Zimba, from Oakenshawe, said he was confident his votes were identified by poll judges when he used the ballot marking device because he was the only blind voter in his neighborhood. He said the electoral commission is releasing data on the number of people using the ballot marking device at each polling station.

Zimba wants the state to require everyone to use the ballot marking devices. When he was voting at Margaret Brent Elementary in Charles Village about two years ago, the ballot marker failed, he said. Instead of five minutes, it took him about 45 minutes to vote because the poll worker struggled to set up the machine.

Blake said NFB will be lobbying at the Maryland General Assembly next year to allow those overseas, the military and the disabled to return their ballots electronically.

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The Americans with Disability Act requires that people with disabilities be given equal choices, said Jessica Weber, an attorney with the Baltimore-based law firm Brown, Goldstein & Levy, who represented NFB in the 2021 lawsuit.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, states that allow voters with disabilities to return their ballots electronically include Colorado, Massachusetts, Utah, Washington and West Virginia.

Blake is originally from Wilmington, Delaware. Now she lives in Federal Hill. In 1982 she graduated from the Montana College of Mineral Science and Technology with an engineering degree. She studied law at Widener University Delaware Law School in Wilmington.

Prior to her current role at NFB, her other positions included research specialist and project manager. She joined NFB in 2005.

She spent a month training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, where she learned skills like cooking and travel. Cooking a meal for 30 people was a requirement for completion.

“I benefited a lot from that,” she says. “[Being blind] is something that people have to come to terms with in their own time.”

This article is part of our Newsmaker series, which features remarkable people in the Baltimore area who are making a difference in our diverse communities. If you would like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a brief description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor Kamau High at [email protected].