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People with disabilities worry about tougher time voting in Wisconsin

Envelope for absentee ballot
Maayan Silver
The envelope used to vote absentee by mail.

Early, or in-person absentee, voting for the April 5 election has started in Wisconsin, including in the contest for Milwaukee mayor and other local races.

Some people with disabilities say they expect a harder time casting ballots, due to recent court rulings in the state. Those potential voters are also worried about being able to take part in larger elections later this year.

Take the example of Milwaukee resident Bill Crowley, who uses a power wheelchair to get around his apartment building, as he is a quadriplegic, affected by paralysis of all four limbs.

He's been, in past years, a regular voter, thanks to relatives and friends helping mark and send in his ballot. But Crowley says the language used in a recent Waukesha County court decision limiting absentee drop boxes has him worried about trying to complete an absentee ballot this spring

"I am physically unable to put an absentee ballot in the mail myself. So, I would require assistance for anyone to do that for me. And my understanding of the ruling as it is right now, that would be illegal for someone to put it in the mail for me," he says.

Crowley says he's angry and frustrated. "Not just for me, but for many thousands of other people in Wisconsin." He means the thousands of people with disabilities or concerns due to advanced aging or illness.

While Crowley says he is thinking about voting at a polling place on April 5, he says he also knows people who can't get out to vote or have a very difficult time doing so, especially during bad weather or when there are long lines at the polls.

Jessica Nell resides in a Green Bay nursing home.
Photo provided by Jessica Nell
Jessica Nell resides in a Green Bay nursing home.

Even some people who reside in licensed care facilities say they're concerned they may not get the voting assistance next month that's allowed under law. Jessica Nell lives in a nursing home in Green Bay. She has cerebral palsy.

In Nell's experience, homes aren't always helpful getting residents registered to vote. "The nursing home is creating its own barriers, or they just don't feel it's important. Which to me is more than infuriating because just because I'm living in this environment and I need care, doesn't mean I should be stripped of those rights," Nell tells WUWM.

Nell says she wants to have a say in what happens in society. "And I think most importantly it affects me as an advocate. You know, I advocate for things that happen in my city and my country and this state — and I can't advocate properly if I can't say I voted," she says.

Barbara Beckert directs the Milwaukee office of Disability Rights Wisconsin. She says unless a care facility is still under lockdown due to COVID-19 or another health concern, special voting deputies are allowed to go in and help people with absentee voting. But Beckert says there are gaps in the program. For example, she says in 2016, deputies helped far fewer people vote than lived in Wisconsin care facilities. She acknowledges some residents likely didn't want to vote or couldn't. But she says the voting deputies program needs improvement.

Beckert also says with courts and others raising questions about help for voters, the atmosphere may be getting worse, even when it comes to voter registration.

"We're in an environment that's really become very chilling when it comes to the ability for nursing home or group home staff to assist residents with voting," she says.

But Bob Spindell, a Republican appointee to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, says he believes people with disabilities will find a route to voting this spring and fall.

"I understand there's some people that have extremely difficult times. But I tell you, to my knowledge, these people have a lot of gumption. If they want to do something, no matter what it is, they seem to be able to do it. I'm sure if they wanted to cast their ballot, that they would figure out the proper way, or a good way, of doing it," Spindell tells WUWM.

Kathie Eilers is also, relatively, optimistic about people getting to the polls, but for a different reason. She used to run a retirement community in Milwaukee and says she's appalled by the Republican led investigation into the 2020 presidential election in Wisconsin — especially recently shown video footage that made it seem many nursing home residents were misled about the candidates.

Eilers says the seniors she knows won't be deterred from voting this year, and may be more motivated to cast a ballot. "You know, you don't get to be that age without a certain amount of toughness. And I think they know what they want, and know what they want to do," she says.

It's expected that the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which has put a hold on unattended drop boxes for the April election, will have more to say about the boxes by this summer.

Voting rights advocates say that ruling could set the climate for whether people who can't easily drive or walk to the polls are encouraged or discouraged to vote this fall.

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