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How Wisconsin Republicans' Voting Law Proposals Make It Harder For People With Disabilities To Vote

Absentee ballot envelope
Darylann Elmi
Wisconsin Republicans have proposed a wide range of changes to Wisconsin voting laws, some of which disability rights activists say would make harder for people with disabilities to vote.

About one in nine voters with disabilities had difficulty casting their ballots in 2020 — double the rate of voters without disabilities.

Advocates for disability rights are worried that a series of bills proposed in Wisconsin by Republican state Legislators could increase that disparity.

The bills are in varying stages of the legislative process, and, of course, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers could veto any of the bills if they are approved by both the Assembly and Senate.

Several have already passed the state Senate. Senate Bill (SB) 207 would prevent municipalities from receiving private grants to fund elections, grants instead would go through the Wisconsin Elections Commission. In the 2020 presidential election, five Wisconsin cities received more than $6 million to increase access to absentee voting and drop boxes, to increase the number of ballot tabulators and to enhance COVID-19 safety measures. Smaller municipalities were also able to apply for grants.

Other laws passed in the Senate would require the Wisconsin Elections Commission to publicize their meeting minutes online and would allow parties to an election law dispute to go immediately to court instead of using the election commission’s complaint process.

Senator Duey Stroebel, Republican of Saukville says the restrictions — like making sure any private grants are given to the centralized Wisconsin Elections Commission and doled out to municipalities equally on a per capita basis — are necessary to “restore confidence and trust in our elections.”

“Prior to, during and after the 2020 election, public polls showed segments of our population lacked faith in the process and outcomes of elections. These bills are designed to make it easy to vote, but hard to cheat,” says Stroebel.

Disability rights advocates say the bills do not make it easy to vote. Barbara Beckert of Disability Rights Wisconsin says that private grants helped cash-strapped Wisconsin municipalities fund polling place accessibility measures and curbside voting in the general election, as well as help ensure health and safety precautions.

SB 207 also restricts those who work with issue advocacy groups from serving as poll workers. Beckert says municipalities have faced a shortage of poll workers, and that the bill would prohibit employees of groups who advocate for voting rights or for people with disabilities or older adults from doing their civic duty.

On April 12, the Wisconsin Disability Vote Coalition held a briefing for policymakers and officials, addressing state and federal laws that protect voters with disabilities and some of the barriers.

Jenny Neugart, of the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities, was one the advocates who spoke.

“There's accessibility concerns with just entering polling places or the ballot itself, a lack of photo IDs and so many people with disabilities don't drive,” she said. “Lack of transportation goes along with that they can't get to the DMV to get a photo ID or to the polling place.”

Neugart said voters with disabilities often don’t have great access to internet and technology.

“So they can't do a lot of things on the internet, like uploading their photo ID or registering to vote online like the rest of us take for granted,” she said. “Poll workers don't have proper training for people with disabilities. There's a lot of confusion about what are the rights of people with disabilities, especially if they have a guardian, and there's a whole host of stigma and discrimination issues.”

On April 15, the Senate Committee on Elections, Election Process Reform and Ethics will meet to take up three bills, some of which would directly impact voters with disabilities.

Indefinitely Confined Voters

SB 204/AB 201 would eliminate the option for indefinitely confined voters to receive absentee ballots automatically for every election.

Current law allows a voter who identifies themself as indefinitely confined because of age, physical illness, infirmity or disability to have, by signing a statement to that effect, an absentee ballot sent to the voter automatically every election.

Wisconsin’s 2011 voter ID law exempted indefinitely confined voters from the ID requirement. The new bill would require indefinitely confined voters to provide a photo ID with their absentee ballot request. It would also prevent the Wisconsin Elections Commission or other groups from sending absentee ballot applications to all eligible voters and would make it a felony to mail absentee ballot applications to anyone who has not requested one.

Another bill — SB 206/AB 180, which is not in committee yet, would require indefinitely confined voters to provide a statement that they have an infirmity, disability or illness under oath and would require voters under 65 to get that statement signed by their doctors. A false statement would be a felony. Voters would need to renew their status every two years. Under current law, these voters receive an absentee ballot for every election as long as they need it.

Barbara Beckert of Disability Rights Wisconsin says the doctors’ requirement would be a barrier.

“I think doctors are going to be reluctant to do that,” she says. “Because indefinitely confined is very subjective status. That's why the Supreme Court decided last year that it's up to the voter to decide and self-certify their status.”

Beckert says requiring photo IDs or reapplying for the absentee ballots would also be barriers. She says she is eager to work with lawmakers to clarify the “indefinitely confined” status and update the language.

“Other states do not use the term indefinitely confined in the way that Wisconsin does,” says Beckert. “When they use that terminology, it typically means someone who is hospitalized or perhaps in a psychiatric facility, what other states generally use is ‘permanent absentee voter,'"

Beckert says that would clear up some of the confusion for voters on what it means to qualify for the status, and also would be more inclusive to people.

“Some days, you know, someone may be unable to get out of bed, and they really are confined to their home. But at other times, they are feeling better they're able to drive, they may be able to go to work,” she says. “That's why it's important to note that these conditions can be intermittent and that someone may have restrictions on some days that don't affect them all the time.”

Voting in Residential Care Facilities

SB 205/AB 179 attempts to change voting practices in nursing homes and group homes. It would outlaw staff from offering to provide a resident with assistance, making it a felony.

The bill reads: “No employee of a qualified retirement home … may influence an occupant of the home or facility to apply for or not apply for an absentee ballot or cast or refrain from casting a ballot.”

Disability rights advocates say the bill may conflict with federal law, which requires nursing homes to support the right of residents to vote.

This bill would also require the administrator of the facility to notify relatives of the residents when special voting deputies will be coming to the facility to assist in the casting of absentee ballots.

Stephanie Birmingham, a disability rights advocate with Options for Independent Living, calls out the residential care facility legislation as 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.

Only a court of law can determine that someone is incompetent and take away their right to vote, usually through guardianship proceedings. Even under guardianship, courts can preserve an individual’s right to vote.

Written Applications for Absentee Ballots

The Senate Committee on Elections, Election Process Reform and Ethics is also taking up SB 211/AB 178, which would require a separate and distinct absentee ballot application to request a ballot. The certificate envelope that voters seal up to submit the ballots would not count. Voters would have to separately certify that they’re eligible to vote.

The Trump campaign in the November presidential election in Wisconsin argued that this was a flaw in Wisconsin’s election process during the partial recount in Milwaukee and Dane counties and in post-election lawsuits. It argued that hundreds of thousands of voters cast ballots without applications. Meagan Wolfe, head of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, has said with online voter registration and for electronic absentee ballot applications, the law says the electronic record is the application.

READ: Wisconsin Republicans Propose Lengthy List of Voting Law Changes

Several other bills being circulated would do the following:

  • SB 212/AB 198: Prohibit a municipal clerk from correcting a defect on the completed absentee ballot certificate envelope.
  • SB 214: Allow municipal clerks to start canvassing the absentee ballots the day before the election.
  • SB 209/AB 177: Requires voters to either mail or drop off their absentee ballots at the permanent location of the clerk's office. Limits drop box locations to a location attached to the clerk’s permanent office. Sets standards for drop boxes including that they be tamper resistant, moisture-proof and satisfy the accessibility requirements under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • SB 203/AB 192: Require voters to either mail or drop off their absentee ballots at the permanent location of the clerk's office. Prohibit any individual from helping more than one non-family member to return their absentee ballot. Limit who can return a voter’s absentee ballot to the voter’s immediate family or legal guardian, with very limited exceptions.
Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.