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Advocates for voters with disabilities voice concern over Republican efforts to shape Wisconsin elections

Voting sign with arrow pointing to the left
Ann-Elise Henzl
Voting sign with arrow pointing to the left for Wards 1, 2, 3 and 4.

As Wisconsin heads into midterm elections for governor, a U.S. senate seat, Congress, some state legislative posts and more, an important civil right for people with disabilities is to have accommodations to vote. These rights are ensured by state and federal law, and Wisconsin disability rights advocates say even in non-pandemic years, these laws aren’t consistently followed.

At the same time, since the 2020 election, Wisconsin conservatives have been spearheading efforts to reshape election processes, both via law proposals in the legislature and lawsuits.

READ: Wisconsin Republicans Propose Lengthy List of Voting Law Changes

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has been vetoing anything that he says will make voting harder.

Milwaukee director of Disability Rights Wisconsin, Barbara Beckert, and Stephanie Birmingham, advocacy coordinator for Options for Independent Living in Green Bay, weigh in on these efforts and how they could be detrimental to voters with disabilities.

“There's plenty of resources and training opportunities available,” says Birmingham. “Disability Rights Wisconsin has information. The Wisconsin Elections Commission has information about what accessible polling places ought to look like.”

On election day, polling places have accessibility audits and reviews that people from the general public can volunteer to assist with. “Which is just really helping look at different polling locations and making sure that they meet their obligations to be accessible to people with disabilities,” Birmingham says.

Polling places in each Wisconsin municipality must ensure that their curbside voting access is accessible to people with disabilities. “So a person may show up and want to vote curbside. How can a person who arrives alert a poll worker they’re there? Is it visible about where a person needs to go to vote curbside, all those things that go into voting curbside?”

Birmingham points out that voters with disabilities have a smaller likelihood of having a seat at the table where most decisions are being made that affect their lives. “Voting is a way for historically marginalized populations to have their voice matter and be engaged in the democratic process,” she explains.

She says it’s a confusing message for people in power to support legislation that makes it more difficult for people to engage in the democratic process. “Because that's ultimately saying we're going to hold you hostage,” says Birmingham. “We're going to hold your rights hostage. And to hold entire groups of people hostage like that really sends quite a message that populations are undervalued. It's demoralizing. It's infantilizing.”

Another round of Republican election bills

Last week, Republicans in the Wisconsin legislature unveiled a dozen new bills that would reshape elections in this state.

READ: Wisconsin Senate committee holds hearing on election bills critics say make voting harder

Some bills would take power from the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission and channel it into the GOP-led legislature and legislative committees.

Beckert, of Disability Rights Wisconsin, says partisanship can get in the way of ensuring voters with disabilities receive the accommodations they're entitled to by law.

"We are very supportive of the model that we currently have in Wisconsin with having a non-partisan election commission that provides guidance to municipal clerks," says Beckert. Currently, the Wisconsin Elections Commission staff is non-partisan, and the commission itself is bipartisan, with three Democrats and three Republicans.

“Because if we get a question from a voter, and we're not sure the answer ... we want to make sure that we are giving the most correct and up to date guidance,” Beckert says.

Beckert says having people who are not election professionals making decisions or answering voter questions could be problematic. Such work requires a deep understanding of elections at a granular level.

Other bills would directly impact voters with disabilities as they address who qualifies for indefinitely confined voting or can assist with voting in nursing homes. These bills were part of a package of bills GOP legislators introduced over the past few weeks. They will not be immediately voted upon in the state senate elections committee after receiving significant pushback from the disability rights community at a hearing on Feb. 7, 2022.

The bills were introduced by Republican state Sen. Kathy Bernier, head of the senate committee on campaigns and elections. She is a former elections clerk, and Beckert says she has been listening to the feedback of those advocating for voters with disabilities.

One topic of concern for Republicans has been indefinitely confined voters, those who require a permanent absentee ballot because of age, infirmity or disability, and voting in nursing homes. Beckert says in other states, the category is called a “permanent absentee voter because of disability.”

Under current law, indefinitely confined voters don't have to provide a photo ID to get an absentee ballot. According to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, it’s up to the voter to decide if they fall under this category. “It’s not a medical diagnosis that you get a blood test for or something,” says Beckert. "It’s a situation where because of your disability, it’s difficult for you to get out of your home and go to the polling place.”

Beckert says that indefinitely confined voting has been a lifeline for many people with disabilities and older adults, including around 80,000 people living in the state who require a nursing home level of care.

Under Bernier's initial proposal, most confined voters would have to provide a copy of their photo ID. Also, thousands of voters who first claimed they were confined between March 2020 and November 2020 would no longer be considered confined voters. They would have to reapply to continue to receive absentee ballots.

Beckert says some voters with disabilities are non-drivers or live in remote rural areas and can’t drive or access a DMV to get a photo ID. They also may have difficulty accessing technology to upload one.

According to Beckert, Bernier’s initial proposal offers some innovative ideas for how these issues could be addressed, and she says the senator has had an open line of communication with the disability rights community, one that Beckert is eager to continue.

But Beckert does not think requiring voters with disabilities to reapply just because they signed up for permanent absentee ballots during the pandemic is a good idea. "You know, yes, there are people who were concerned during the pandemic, a lot of people, I mean, some of the high profile people in the political world who, perhaps unintentionally, selected that designation of indefinitely confined voters. But there already are procedures in place, as I understand where clerks are supposed to follow up and reach out and ask individuals: do you need to continue the status?"

She says she's more concerned about voter disenfranchisement. People who legitimately need the status being disenrolled, then expecting a ballot, and it not arriving. She's also concerned about the opposite problem of people enrolling and not being eligible.

“What we've seen over the years is a lot of people who qualify for and need this indefinitely confined voter status are not aware of it.”

Potential disenfranchisement of voters in nursing homes

Another bill from Bernier, and other GOP legislators, SB 935, which isn't being voted on in its current form after pushback from disability rights advocates and voters with disabilities, has to do with voting in nursing homes. Bernier's initial legislation would allow nursing home workers to assist with voting during a pandemic if special voting deputies couldn't visit the facilities. They'd be required to get training on voting and could help registered voters fill out ballots.

But workers couldn't help register voters who weren't registered.

Beckert says the voting rights of people in care facilities have been under attack in Wisconsin. “We're concerned about any provision that narrows the ability of voters and care facilities to cast a ballot,” she says. She sites federal protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Voting Rights Act, that voters in a nursing home can get assistance from a person of their choice, not only from a special voting deputy, or a nursing home, personal assistant.

“So those are some more global questions that we should be asking about restrictions on the voting rights of people in care facilities,” Beckert says. She also points out that these certified voting personal care assistants would not be able to assist the residents with registering to vote.

“Well, when people come to a nursing home, they're moving [to the nursing home], they need assistance with registering to vote again.” She says Disability Rights Wisconsin is concerned that staff are going to be afraid to provide that kind of assistance, again, possibly resulting in voters being disenfranchised.

Beckert is also concerned about provisions in the bills that would require a nursing home to send out notice to relatives about voting practices so they can come observe. Beckert says it should be up to the nursing home resident to allow their family to be notified and observe. She notes there’s sometimes friction between family members and also notes only a judge can take away the right to vote.

Absentee ballot return assistance is essential for some voters with disabilities

Maayan Silver speaks with Stephanie Birmingham, the advocacy coordinator for Options for Independent Living in Green Bay and Barbara Beckert, the director of the Milwaukee office of Disability Rights Wisconsin about voting access for people living with disabilities and the legal battle over election drop boxes.

In January, a trial court agreed with a conservative law firm, and ordered that absentee ballot drop boxes can only be located at clerk’s offices and only voters can return their own ballots. An appellate court stayed the ruling. The Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed to take the case but is allowing drop boxes to be used without those restrictions for the February 15 primary—that is Milwaukee’s mayoral primary.

READ: Wisconsin Supreme Court keeps ballot boxes in place for now

The justices will decide in coming months whether drop boxes will be restricted for elections after that, elections for governor and U.S. senate and legislative offices. Several voting rights groups are challenging the trial court’s order, including Disability Rights Wisconsin. Beckert explains, “Many people with disabilities in Wisconsin need to have a person of their choice — that could be a family member, a friend, a care provider, a neighbor — to help return their absentee ballots, because they have barriers that prevent them for doing it.”

She notes there are a myriad of reasons, including chronic health conditions such as muscular dystrophy, or cerebral palsy, or ALS, or multiple sclerosis or other health conditions that limit their mobility, or potentially not having hands or arms. That’s one reason the organization is opposed to any court ruling that would require the voter themselves to return a ballot.

Beckert is also concerned that criminalization or prohibiting someone other than the voter from returning a ballot might cause confusion and have a chilling affect on caregivers offering to help voters with disabilities fill out ballots.

“People under federal law, are entitled to have an individual of their choice assist them with completing their absentee ballot, as long as it's not their employer, or their union representative,” emphasizes Beckert. “And we believe that assistance should include assistance with absentee ballot return.

Beckert says that anyone who needs help with voting issues can call the voter hotline at 844-347-8683. She says her organization provides assistance for voters year round. Voters can also get information via the Wisconsin Disability Vote Coalition.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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