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Disability Rights Wisconsin says new guidance disenfranchises disabled voters

Marti Mikkelson
Earlier this summer, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that most drop boxes aren’t allowed in the state, and voters cannot have someone else drop off their ballot for them.

Last week, Republican legislators struck down a rule allowing Wisconsin election clerks to fix minor issues in witness addresses listed on absentee ballots. The move is in stark contrast with a recent ruling from the Wisconsin Election Commission allowing Republican candidate Tim Michels to remain on the ballot, despite an incomplete address listed on his paperwork. The fate of this rule remains unclear but is likely to be settled by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, controlled by conservative justices.

Earlier this summer, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that most drop boxes aren’t allowed in the state, and voters cannot have someone else drop off their ballot for them. The ruling is a further blow to democracy and is adding confusion to the voting process, particularly for people with disabilities who rely on absentee ballots.

As a result of the ruling, four people in Wisconsin with disabilities filed a lawsuit Friday asking a federal court to ensure that they'll be able to get help turning in their ballots. People with disabilities who brought the lawsuit argue that many Wisconsin residents, including those who have cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and are paralyzed, won't be able to vote if they can't get help from someone else to either mail their ballots for them or deliver them in person.

Barbara Beckert is the director of external advocacy for Disability Rights Wisconsin, and she discusses the challenges facing disabled voters. She has found that voters with disabilities face various barriers when they try to cast their votes. She explains that a portion of those with disabilities are also non-drivers, making it more challenging to get to the Department of Motor Vehicles or DMV to get a photo ID, which is needed to cast your vote, and ultimately to get to the ballot box.

“At Disability Rights Wisconsin, we have a lot of proactive policy ideas that we would like to see move forward to ensure that our voting process in Wisconsin is more accessible and more inclusive of voters with disabilities,” says Beckert.

She says voters with disabilities rely more heavily on absentee voting than other communities and with the recent Supreme Court decisions, the state is moving backward in the fight for voter rights. She says this issue is something every citizen should be concerned about as disability affects so many of our community members.

“Sometimes people say that it’s the one minority group that any of us might join at any time. Some people are born with a disability. Others acquire it through a life event,” says Beckert.

Beckert states that many people with disabilities do not know they're legally entitled to accommodations, and some election workers do not know either, which makes the voting process difficult. She explains that disabled voters can have a person of their choice assist them with mailing or delivering their ballot. Any voter with a blindness disability or an inability to read may seek assistance from a person of their choice to assist them with completing the ballot, excluding an employer, an agent of their employer, or a union representative.

She encourages people with questions to go to their website for explanations on contacting your municipal clerk and asking for accommodations.

"We have a statement that explains the process for contacting their municipal clerk and asking for a disability-related accommodation explaining that because of their disability, they're not able to deliver their own ballot, and they're authorizing another person to do so on their behalf," says Beckert.

Disability Rights Wisconsin was party to the lawsuit considered by the Supreme Court earlier this month. While the court did not address the issues in the way they had hoped, they are still asking policymakers to join them in a conversation on advancing policy protecting disabled voters. She explains that this is a step backward for Wisconsin as absentee ballots and assistance with mail-in votes have been long-standing practices in Wisconsin.

“But I think Wisconsin has had a good history of trying to work together to ensure that voters with disabilities have the opportunity to participate in our democracy, and we should be moving forward. That's our state's motto, right? Not taking a step backward.”

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Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Cait Flynn was an assistant producer for Lake Effect 2022 to 2023.
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