By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Monday revived a lawsuit claiming that Ohio's paper-ballot absentee voter system discriminates against blind people by preventing them from voting anonymously, and forcing them to get help from people with sight.
By a 3-0 vote, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati said a lower court judge acted prematurely in dismissing the lawsuit by three blind voters and the National Federation of the Blind.
The plaintiffs wanted Ohio to provide blind voters with online absentee ballots and adopt marking tools used in other U.S. states, including Maryland and Oregon.
They said its requirement that blind voters get aid from sighted people violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
Ohio said the proposed changes would require a "fundamental alteration" to its voting program, and circumvent certification requirements for voting equipment that were intended to preserve the integrity of elections.
But the appeals court panel, whose members were appointed by Republican presidents, said Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted had the burden of proving a fundamental alteration, and simply accepting his determination that one existed was not enough.
"Only if the substantive interests undergirding the certification rules cannot be met by the ballot marking tools and electronic ballots, as shown by evidence presented by the parties, can the district court properly make a determination," Circuit Judge Richard Griffin wrote.
A spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, whose office represented Husted, had no immediate comment.
"We know that this technology is out there," Jessica Weber, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in an interview.
"The message from today's decision is that the existence of a unmet state requirement regarding technology isn't enough to justify blind voters the right to vote by absentee ballot, independently and privately," she added.
Monday's decision returned the case to U.S. District Judge George Smith in Columbus, Ohio for further proceedings.
The case is Hindel et al v Husted, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 17-3207.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Richard Chang)