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Advocates for People with Disabilities Decry GOP Proposed Election Law Changes

Many people with disabilities and without voted absentee in the November presidential election in Wisconsin.
Maayan Silver
Many people with disabilities and without voted absentee in the November presidential election in Wisconsin.

About one in nine voters with disabilities had difficulty casting their ballots in 2020 — double the rate of voters without disabilities. And disability rights advocates are worried that a series of bills proposed in Wisconsin by Republican state legislators could increase that disparity.

Few things are more important to Stephanie Birmingham than her right to vote. The 33-year-old disability rights advocate from Sturgeon Bay risked her life to vote in-person in 2019.

“I had to drive my power wheelchair literally down the middle of the street in order to get my to my nearest polling location,” she says. “Why you ask? Well, because the sidewalks being that were in Wisconsin were covered in ice and snow, and the public buses didn't go to my polling location.”

Birmingham voted as indefinitely confined in November. Indefinitely confined voters are those that get a permanent absentee ballot because of age, infirmity, illness or disability and don’t have to provide a photo ID.

Birmingham found it much easier to vote via absentee ballot in 2020, and she’s not alone. Voting difficulties for people with disabilities markedly declined between 2012 and 2020.

Michelle Bishop, voter access and engagement manager for the National Disability Rights Network, explains that’s because of changes like expanded early voting and curbside voting.

“We added drop boxes,” she says. “If you couldn't get to your polling place or you didn't feel safe in your polling place, in many states, there was a drop box where you could deliver your ballot.”

Bishop also points to relaxed absentee voting requirements. That’s an area that Republican lawmakers have turned their eyes towards in dozens of new bills.

State Senator Duey Stroebel, Republican of Saukville, is the author of many of the bills. At a meeting of the State Senate Committee on Elections, Election Process Reform and Ethics, he said, “According to Wisconsin Election Commission, 27.8% of votes cast in the November 2016 election were absentee ballots. In November of last year, 59.7% of votes cast for absentee ballots.”

Stroebel continued, “This increase in absentee voting, driven primarily by COVID-19, highlighted some discrepancies in our current absentee ballot process. It also highlighted a couple of opportunities to codify best practices that increase transparency and provide uniformity in absentee voting.”

Legislators took up several of the bills in the Senate elections committee Thursday. One would levy a photo ID requirement for indefinitely confined voters and eliminate their ability to receive absentee ballots permanently.

Stephanie Birmingham, the disability rights advocate, is against these provisions. She says they levy additional barriers on those who are already more at risk of being disenfranchised.

“One of the greatest barriers faced by Wisconsinites that are disabled is the lack of transportation, especially in rural areas. Not only are there people with disabilities who don't drive like myself, but getting to a local DMV is not a simple task,” she says. “And to think that there's someone who's readily available to take them is assuming that people with disabilities always have someone at the helm for every need.”

An additional bill that has not yet had a public hearing would require indefinitely confined voters under 65 to get a doctor to confirm their status

Another law would require administrators of a care facility or retirement home to let residents’ families know when special voting deputies will conduct absentee voting.

Birmingham says this law is paternalistic. “Just because a person is living in a residential care facility or retirement home, it doesn't mean that they're incompetent or need a loved one to keep track of their voting habits,” she says.

She says having to notify family members of when special voting deputies are coming infringes on individual freedom, choice and privacy. “I ask you, do your loved ones get notified when you vote?” queries Birmingham.

Some, like Oconto County elections clerk Kim Pytleski say this raises privacy and civil rights concerns.

“Just because an individual is in a care facility doesn't take away their right to vote,” says Pytleski. “That is done at the court level. And one of the things that we're hearing a lot is, you know, grandma might not remember my name, which is, you know, unfortunate, but she still has that right to vote.”

The bill would also make it a felony for staff to influence a resident not just on who to vote for, but also whether to apply or not apply for an absentee ballot.

Pytleski is concerned that a well-meaning CNA would be charged with a felony for offering someone the ability to vote.

Republican state senators say they will be conferring with disability rights advocates to further discuss their concerns.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers could veto the bills if they pass the senate and assembly.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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