Voting rights activists and others gather at the Midtown Center in Milwaukee on the first day of early voting. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Less than two weeks before the midterm elections, in a year in which Republicans have attempted to tighten the reins on voting rules based on false theories of election fraud, the Wisconsin Disability Vote Coalition held a virtual event Wednesday to outline what accommodations voters with disabilities are entitled to and how the rules have changed in the last two years.
Since the 2020 election there have been numerous lawsuits over how a Wisconsin voter is able to cast a ballot, largely from Republicans seeking to close avenues they falsely believe led to fraud in 2020. Many of those lawsuits had the effect of limiting options for disabled voters.
A lawsuit from Waukesha County led the state Supreme Court to declare that absentee ballot drop boxes are illegal and that voters must return their absentee ballots on their own. This led to a federal lawsuit from several voters with disabilities who argued they cannot physically return their ballots without assistance from someone else. Earlier this year a federal judge declared that Wisconsin voters with disabilities must be allowed accommodations to cast their ballots.
“This has been a very confusing year for many voters with disabilities,” Barbara Beckert of Disability Rights Wisconsin said. “The voting process for absentee voters has changed with every one of the four elections this year. While voters received information from clerks and heard a lot from the media about restrictions, elimination of drop boxes and that only a voter may mail or return their ballot, there hasn’t always been as much information shared about important voter rights and accommodations, including the right to assistance with voting. We’re hearing that a lot of voters are confused. We want to be sure that voters with disabilities know their rights and that election officials protect and ensure these rights, which are guaranteed by federal and state law.”
This summer, U.S. District Judge James Peterson ruled that voters with disabilities can have their absentee ballots delivered by another person. The Wisconsin Elections Commission later voted not to require any paperwork from the voter or assistor when returning the ballot.
“We recommend the voters let their person who’s assisting them know they may be asked to confirm that they are returning a ballot for a person with a disability,” Martha Chambers, one of the voters who brought the federal lawsuit, said on Wednesday. “The voter and assistor should not ever have to fill out any forms or provide proof of disability. So no one can ask me what my disability is.”
In addition to assistance, polling places are required to be made accessible to voters with disabilities. That requirement includes machines with equipment that allows blind people to cast a ballot, wheelchair accessibility, access to a signature guide to aid the signing of the poll book, access to a magnifier and help from someone else when voters are asked by a poll worker for their names and addresses.
“Under both Wisconsin law and the Federal Help America Vote Act, all polling places are required to have accessible voting equipment ready for voters, plugged in, turned on, programs tested when the polls open on Election Day,” said Denise Jess, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired. “And that equipment is really critical for voters with blindness and other disabilities that prohibit us from being able to mark the standard print ballot privately and independently.”
Jess also pointed to an aspect of Wisconsin voting that remains inaccessible. Because she’s blind, it’s currently impossible for her to cast an absentee ballot privately. Other states use absentee ballots that can be read using technology that allows blind people to read the ballot and vote but, Jess said, it would require a change in state statute for Wisconsin to allow accessible ballots.
“In Wisconsin, we do not have an accessible absentee ballot,” she said, noting that other states have adopted technology that allows ballots to be read and marked privately by people who can’t see. “ In Wisconsin, “we sacrifice our ability to vote privately and independently if we choose to vote absentee or need to vote absentee. …It could be amended by changing state statute so that we would be doing best practice by having an accessible and [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliant ballot.”
Election Day is Nov. 8 but early voting has already started. Absentee ballots can be requested until Nov. 3, but officials recommend ballots be placed in the mail prior to Nov. 4 in order for them to arrive on time. The Disability Vote Coalition is connecting people who are unable to get to the polls themselves with transportation.
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