Before elections, the Voters Hotline at Disability Rights Wisconsin rings frequently, and in the months leading up to the 2020 presidential election hundreds of calls poured in. The group helped everyone it could with issues ranging from needing witnesses for absentee ballots and returning those ballots to finding viable transportation to spreading awareness of curbside voting.
Despite laws meant to help, protect and make improvements for voters with disabilities over the past decade, these voters were twice as likely to encounter difficulties as others who were voting. But while the gap between the percentage of people with and without disabilities who vote has historically been wide, there were improvements in closing that gap in 2020 during the pandemic.
That good news, however, comes alongside bad news.
Many of the measures that were helpful in 2020 — including greater accommodations for absentee ballots, convenient drop boxes and expanded early voting — are on the chopping block in a spate of election bills currently being pushed through the Wisconsin Legislature as a top Republican priority.
Many of the voting changes being proposed in the name of stopping fraud — despite its having been proven to be virtually nonexistent — appear designed to create obstacles for Democratic voters, particularly those who live in larger cities. The same measures also hurt voters with disabilities, residents of group homes and the elderly who do not fit into a red or blue partisan profile and would be among the Wisconsinites most likely to be disenfranchised by such bills, were they to become law.
“This should not be a partisan issue,” says Barbara Beckert, director of Disability Rights in Wisconsin’s Milwaukee office. “I mean, this affects people of all political philosophies. Disability and age are neither a Democratic or Republican monopoly. This would impact voters for any political party.”
Here are a few of the calls that came into the Voters Hotline:
- A person in Sparta was bedridden due to multiple sclerosis in his last year of life. He wanted to vote but needed medical transport to get to the polls and to get a photo ID. He was unable to get to the DMV to get identification, “he was never able to vote and he died wanting to vote,” says Beckert.
- In Milwaukee a voter produced a promotional mailing, which is not accepted as proof of residence, and the poll worker did not ask about electronic documents. She was turned away and upon leaving an observer spoke with the voter outside the polling place, and discovered she had an electronic utility bill, and she was able to use it and vote.
- A caller who was unable to cast a ballot in April 2020 in Milwaukee stated: “When I attempted to request an absentee ballot online the process was incomplete. I knew I could vote next door at my usual place where some election volunteers are familiar with me. When I realized my voting place had been moved to a new site due to only five available polling sites, it was too late to get help to obtain an absentee ballot.”
- A voter with a disability needed assistance completing his ballot in Madison and requested assistance from a poll worker who agreed to help. Another poll worker came up and said that was not allowed and that if he wanted to vote, he must do it without assistance. This is not true, but the voter felt humiliated and left without voting.
- A voter who did not have fingers brought a family member to assist in completing the ballot. They were told the voter would need to fill out the ballot without assistance in order to vote.
- From Green Bay in April 2020: “My husband and I are both disabled. We had driven to the voting site five times throughout the day and the line was so long. Neither my husband or I can stand in line for four hours because of health issues therefore we did not get a chance to vote.”
- In Hayward: A man living in a group home was told that if he left the facility to vote in person, he would not be allowed to return. According to DRW: “He expressed interest in absentee voting but did not know how to request a ballot; the group home did not provide assistance. Although he wanted to vote, he was afraid of the threat that he would become homeless if he left to vote, so did not participate in the election.”
Positive side of pandemic voting
There was some good news for voters with disabilities during COVID-19. The explosion of absentee ballots and a desire to avoid polling places where the coronavirus might spread meant more people heard about curbside voting, there were more secure drop boxes to deposit absentee ballots, absentee ballot applications were mailed to registered voters automatically and information about how to vote securely from home was spread widely. And grant funds were more widely available and could be used for new voting equipment at polling locations, including machines for voters with disabilities.
The bad news for such voters — and many others who appreciated the efforts that the Wisconsin Elections Commission, municipal and county clerks and others made to facilitate voting — is that a number of those helpful actions could become illegal. While Gov. Tony Evers is certain to veto such bills, the high priority Republicans place on them makes it likely they will continue to spread a false narrative of fraud and continue to push the bills, as well as using them in election attempts to help Republican gubernatorial contenders who will vow to immediately sign them into law if elected.
Also intimidating: Non-compliance with many of the bills constitutes a felony that could result in steep fines and/or a jail sentence.
More voters than you might imagine
Voters with disabilities are not a small group.
Almost one in four voters in the 2020 presidential election was a person with a disability, says Jenny Neugart, of the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities. That includes people who are blind, low vision, deaf, hard of hearing, have intellectual or physical disabilities, complex medical needs and chronic health concerns.
Historically, there have been lower voting rates among people with disabilities. In Wisconsin, there is a 10.4% gap in voter turnout between citizens with and without disabilities according to a 2018 study.
This is “not a small number, and really the purpose of the Disability Vote Coalition is to close that gap the best we can by providing information,” says Neugart.
To that end, the Wisconsin Disability Vote Coalition, a partnership of more than two dozen groups, led an April 12 briefing for legislators, their staff and other interested parties on the voting experience for people with disabilities and the barriers they encounter. Two legislators who spoke up on the call were Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls) who is a former elections clerk and current chair of the Senate election committee and Sen. Janet Bewley (D-Mason), the Senate minority leader.
Some of the most common barriers for these groups Neugart lists are a lack of transportation, lack of photo ID (many are non drivers), accessibility concerns, limited access to internet and technology, faulty or no accommodations and limited training of poll workers. “There’s a lot of confusion about what are the rights of people with disabilities … and there’s a whole host of stigma and discrimination issues.”
A variety of federal laws protect voting rights of people with disabilities, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), the Voting Rights Act (1965) and the National Voter Registration Act (Motor Voter 1993).
The ADA requires government and public entities to ensure that people with disabilities have a full and equal opportunity to vote and the right to a private and independent ballot.
“This applies to all aspects of voting,” says Michelle Bishop of the National Disabilities Rights Network. “I want to stress that this includes from start to finish that process for voters. Voter registration, websites, polling places, how you receive, mark, verify and cast your ballot — whether or not you’re doing that on Election Day, during an early voting period or you’re voting absentee or by mail.”
There are also best practices that may not always be mandated, such as providing opportunities to register to vote at other government offices during routine business or curbside voting. And the right to vote can only be taken away from someone, including those with cognitive impairments, by a judge in court.
In 2020, there were positive developments that facilitated voting for people with disabilities and problems encountered dropped between 2012 and 2020. Nevertheless, one in nine voters with disabilities encountered difficulties, at nearly double the rate of people without disabilities, according to Bishop.
“Barriers for voters with disabilities are pretty consistent going back to 2000 [and continuing] all the way to 2018,” she says. “We see, as someone who’s been tracking these statistics, that the change happens specifically in 2020. We saw a marked improvement.”
The reasons are easy to understand. “We expanded early voting in a number of states … rather than having to get to one specific location on one specific day, we had drop boxes … we extended curbside voting.” Many of those improvements happened as part of an effort to facilitate voting during COVID-19. For example, curbside voting allowed people who had concerns about infection, were immunocompromised or had to begin a quarantine after the deadline for receiving an absentee ballot had passed could still cast a vote. The pandemic introduced all voters to the wide array of options available and, says Bishop, voters “used them in droves.”
Bishop showed her elderly mother how to use a drop box, and they got it done in 10 minutes. “Every single day of early voting in the state where I live, in Virginia right outside DC, there was at least a two-hour wait, I’m gonna say she would not have been able to make that line. That drop box is a lifesaver for us.”
Senate elections committee chair Bernier challenged the idea that people with disabilities are the ones calling themselves indefinitely confined in order to vote. “As you know, we have an accommodation in the state of Wisconsin for the indefinitely confined,” says Bernier. “When you say that people will take advantage of it, we have found that that’s not the case, that we’ve had a lot of able-bodied individuals take advantage. So we have to review our current policies so that people cannot take advantage of the provisions we’ve provided for those with disabilities.”
Bernier has concerns that people will ask for accommodations who do not need them, such as moving up in line. Bishops responds that she doubts too many people would make that request. “So many people with disabilities are so hesitant to call that out publicly, to say I’m a person with a disability, I need this particular type of accommodation,” Bishop says. “We actually find that it’s under-requested versus over-requested. So we actually stress making it as open as possible and trying to promote it as much as possible so voters know it’s there.”
Bishop compares allowing all voters to use the accommodations to curb cuts that help a person in a wheelchair from a sidewalk into the crosswalk on the street. “But we don’t stop people who are pushing a stroller or rolling piece of luggage from using it because it benefits everyone.”
“When we get into the rural areas of Wisconsin, that’s when we really see some issues with transportation,” says Kyle Kleist with the Center for Independent Living for Western Wisconsin, Inc. (CILWW), which represents 10 counties with large rural areas. He emphasizes that rides to get voters to the polls must be both affordable and accessible, adding that rideshares can be costly and most often not properly equipped with lifts.
“Medicaid does not provide trips for people who go to cast their ballot or for going to the DMV, so you can get proper photo ID,” says Kliest. He adds that clerks automatically mailing absentee ballot applications to registered voters — something the election bills would halt — was helpful.
Not surprisingly, spotty broadband in rural areas is another huge obstacle for rural residents, preventing access to the convenient “My Vote” site to register and apply for a ballot. “One of the things you hear all the time” is that even where internet access is available, it’s not affordable. This particularly affects people with disabilities who are on a fixed income, Kliest notes. “For many people, their only access to the internet is going to their public libraries, so when it comes to being able to register for an absentee ballot, you need to be able to do this online. You need to be able to scan your driver’s license.”
Bill by bill consequences
“A number of these bills would make it harder for many voters with a disability and older adults to vote,” says Beckert. “It would make it more difficult for them to get assistance from friends and neighbors and community volunteers. It would restrict workers in nursing homes and group homes from offering residents assistance with voting.”
And, she adds, the stiff penalties for a violation that include jail time and large fines will scare people away from helping others. “You’re talking about a CNA who doesn’t make much money at a nursing home or a community volunteer who in the past might have served as a witness for someone or given them a ride to the polls. I mean, there’s a lot that I think that would scare people.”
Beckert offers a bill by bill analysis of the bills she feels would be most harmful for the people she serves.
This bill claims to improve secure delivery of absentee ballots by dramatically limiting who can return absentee ballots. Complex details include designating one family member or legal guardian or spelling out one person in writing who can return a ballot for you. That is problematic if families are not in Wisconsin or voters might not have an engaged legal guardian. Often people with disabilities are non-drivers and many were anxious about having lead time to mail back absentee ballots and needed assistance.
“We got a lot of calls from people who didn’t want to mail their ballot,” Beckert says regarding the 2020 presidential election. She adds that church groups and voting advocates such as Souls to the Polls often might step in to help, but this bill would prevent them from doing so.
This bill prohibits automatically sending out absentee ballot applications to all eligible voters. “So there is supposed to be a permanent absentee voter provision,” says Beckert. Having to fill it out every election (or every other, there are several versions of the bill) and provide photo ID each time is difficult for people who do not have access to technology, is burdensome and will disenfranchise voters. “We think that that’s getting rid of the whole point of it, which is that some voters because of disability, age or a health condition need that option to automatically receive absentee ballots.” It would make sending an application — which groups like DRW can do under current law — a felony.
This bill limits residential care facilities’ ability to assist voters. There are special voting deputies that go out to facilities, but lists of facilities are not comprehensive. “They’re people who are much younger with disabilities who live in care facilities and I’ve talked to some of them and let me tell you, they do not have an easy time of voting,” says Beckert. The penalties here could easily scare workers. “The devil is in the details, but if you were a CNA working in a care facility I don’t think you would feel comfortable saying, ‘Oh, do you want to request an absentee ballot? Do you want to register to vote?’” says Beckert. And nothing ensures people moving into a care facility will proactively get voting information.
This bill adds hurdles for designating one’s status as an indefinitely confined voter for purposes of receiving absentee ballots automatically. It requires statements under oath (it’s not clear if a notary would be needed) and a note from a medical provider — a cost not covered by insurance and not easily obtainable for many voters with disabilities. It also requires renewal every year or two (in differing versions of the legislation). It presents transportation barriers as well. “The language is confusing,” says Beckert. “Other states use the term ‘permanently absentee voter’ due to age, disability or medical condition.” She suggests it would be helpful for Wisconsin to consider that language change.
This bill restricts who can be a poll worker — excluding people from issue advocacy groups. It also prohibits clerks from accepting grants from a private group to help with holding an election. Communities with tight budgets often get special election equipment with grant funding. Milwaukee got some new equipment this way. This bill passed the state Senate on April 14.
This bill requires voters to drop off ballots at the permanent location at the clerk’s office. “It would make voting harder for people with restricted mobility and few transportation options, particularly in rural areas. The bill’s authors cited their objections to “Democracy in the Parks,” where residents dropped off ballots in Madison parks.
This bill would prohibit a clerk from correcting a defect on the envelope of an absentee ballot, for example, by filling in a witness address. The timeline might not allow for a ballot to be returned to a voter and resubmitted. And while rejected envelopes would be posted on My Vote, people without access to computers or reliable internet service wouldn’t see that notification.