The Wisconsin Capitol on spring election day, April 7, 2020. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)
Wisconsinites with disabilities say they’re concerned that a recent decision from the state Supreme Court will force them to ask their friends and family to break the law in order to help them vote.
At an event Thursday celebrating the 32nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) hosted by Disability Rights Wisconsin (DRW) and other advocacy groups, several participants said there are still barriers blocking disabled people from accessing the right to vote.
The event was held just weeks after the state Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision that absentee ballot drop boxes aren’t allowed under state law. The case, Teigen vs. Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) also raised questions about the legality of getting someone else to return a person’s absentee ballot. The court’s majority declined to rule on that question, but the decision has still cast doubt on the practice, known as ballot return assistance.
Meagan Wolfe, the administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC), recently said in a news conference that state law requires voters to return their own absentee ballots — a requirement that can be insurmountable for voters with disabilities who may not be able to put an envelope in a mailbox or even leave home without significant difficulties.
A group of voters with disabilities, represented by the progressive legal organization Law Forward, has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to assert that getting this kind of assistance is protected by a number of federal laws, including the ADA. But the legal limbo remains an issue just weeks before the state’s August 9 partisan primary in high profile elections, including for the Republican nominee for governor and the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate.
“I always, always, always vote absentee, I need physical assistance filling out the ballot and putting it in the mailbox,” Oshkosh resident Stacy Ellingen said at the DRW event. “When this Teigen case came about I worried about my ability to vote. Just because I can’t physically put the ballot in a box myself shouldn’t mean I can’t vote. It was mind blowing to me that this was even a thing, especially with the caregiver shortage. I can’t risk asking my caregivers to supposedly commit a crime by placing my ballot in the mailbox for me. Granted, the sly side of me knows the rule would be impossible to ever enforce, but it’s the point that it would be a crime if it ever came into question.”
For now, DRW insists that the law allows voters with disabilities to have someone else drop off their ballots for them, according to the organization’s legal director, Kit Kerschensteiner.
“There is nothing that the Teigen court said that changes your ability to have someone help you put that in the mail, drive it to the post office, stick it in the slot, whatever that is, OK, nothing changed about that,” Kerschensteiner said. “I know that there’s some question about ‘I heard somebody say…’ or ‘I heard the clerk say that that’s illegal.’ There’s nothing. They’ve been reading the decision wrong. There’s nothing in there at all. There’s just nothing. DRW feels pretty confident that you can just go ahead and stick your ballot in the mail, same as you did last time.”
If voters are returning their absentee ballots directly to their local clerks, Kerschensteiner says that the ADA requires clerks to give reasonable accommodations to someone with a disability — including allowing someone else to turn the ballot over.
To do this, DRW recommends that voters call their clerk ahead of time to request the accommodation and also fill out an “accommodation request” granting permission to the person returning the ballot.
In addition to requesting these accommodations, voters can also report violations of the ADA to the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division, according to DOJ civil rights attorney Charlotte Lanvers, who also spoke at the event.
“We’re very, very interested in these issues,” Lanvers said. “We don’t at the moment have any public information available of any enforcement decisions in this area, but to the extent that it is creating barriers to access for Wisconsin voters, we would welcome folks to file complaints with our office about it because it is very much on our radar and we are very interested in it.”
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