Voters With Disabilities Face A Challenging Route To Wisconsin Polling Places

Oct 26, 2020

More than 1.6 million voters in Wisconsin have already submitted absentee ballots — either by mailing in their ballot or voting in person during the early vote period that began Oct. 20.

Some of the folks doing early voting or who are waiting until Nov. 3 to vote face extra challenges because they have disabilities. However, they say it didn't have to be this difficult.

On Oct. 22, longtime friends Alice Rodrian and Danita Jackson traveled in Rodrian’s car to the Midtown polling place on Milwaukee’s north side. Rodrian can see, but Jackson has been blind since age 16. 

Once inside the building, Rodrian guided her friend to the check-in table, where after about a 10-minute wait, Jackson received a ballot and a clean pair of headphones in order to use a special voting machine that read the ballot for her. Masks on, Rodrian leaned over Jackson to make sure Jackson's fingers were on the right buttons to advance the device. 

After voting, Jackson told WUWM that she didn't join this year's wave of people doing their absentee voting by mail because those ballots are on paper.

"You have to fill them out by hand, and there are no absentee ballots available in Wisconsin that are accessible for the blind or the visually impaired. So, I didn't have that option,” Jackson said.

The voting machine used by Danita Jackson was specially placed and has adaptive features for use by people with disabilities.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Advocates say many people who are blind don't have others in their household or a trusted friend who could help them fill out a paper ballot the way they want. 

Jackson and Rodrian went to Midtown, even though Jackson says she worried about contracting the coronavirus in a public place.

"I would've liked to stay at home and not risk my friend's and my life out here getting my vote in,” Jackson said.

Jackson says several other states have absentee ballots that the blind are able to access at home and send in via computer.  

Jackson believes an electronic absentee ballot that complies with the ADA or Americans With Disabilities Act would be cheaper than a paper one, and not need mailing. She says she also believes some politicians don't want people with disabilities to vote.  

"So, I guess I definitely think this is voter suppression. Among all the other tricks they're playing. This is one of them, you know,” Jackson said.

The lack of an ADA-approved absentee ballot was part of a federal court case in Wisconsin this summer. But the issue was not resolved.

Shirin Cabraal sits in a vehicle, after taking part in early, in-person absentee voting outside the UW-Milwaukee Student Union.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

People with other physical limitations are also going the extra mile to vote.

Later on Oct. 22, a car moved to the curb on the south side of Kenwood Boulevard, across from the UW-Milwaukee Student Union. Sitting on the passenger side of the front seat was Riverwest resident Shirin Cabraal, who had polio as a child. The retired lawyer uses a walker. A friend had driven her to this curbside early-voting location because Cabraal says she's worried about a mailed absentee ballot being rejected.

"Well, I'm a little nervous about that, because already, they are disqualifying some of these absentee ballots, and who knows?” Cabraal said.

Over the years, Cabraal says she's encountered heavy doors when going in to vote, or parking spaces a long way from the door. Others say they still encounter stairsteps.

Cabraal says for people with disabilities, voting can be far from smooth.

"We've been advocating for more accessible voting for years and years and years. And, they get one thing right and 10 things wrong,” Cabraal said.

Even at UW-Milwaukee, Cabraal's friend had to walk inside the building to get a poll worker to come out and help with the early absentee ballot. Cabraal called it a glitch. Many curbside voting locations, including at Wauwatosa City Hall, have a phone number on an outdoor sign for voters to call for service.

A sign outside Wauwatosa City Hall instructs people with disabilities who want to vote curbside.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Barbara Beckert directs the Milwaukee office of Disability Rights Wisconsin and coordinates the Disability Vote Coalition. She says with COVID-19, there's an unprecedented number of barriers to voting, including in locations like nursing homes and group homes, where communities, this year, can't send in special voting deputies to help with absentee ballots. Beckert says her group has been training care home workers to try to do the job.

"But we still know that many people are not getting the assistance they need to vote. In one case, we heard from someone who lived in a group home who was told that if he left to vote, he would not be able to come back [due to COVID-19 concerns,]” Beckert said.

Beckert also says people without a friend to take them to a polling place also face new challenges this year with restrictions on public transportation. She says others who need a photo ID from the Wisconsin Division of Motor Vehicles find reduced office hours.

Beckert says national estimates are that 23% of the electorate have some sort of disability, though she says not all of those folks view themselves as limited. 

She hopes next year, the Wisconsin Legislature will improve voting access.

For Nov. 3, though, Meagan Wolfe of the Wisconsin Elections Commission is offering potentially faster resolving of problems.

"We actually have a new way to contact us specifically about accessibility concerns on our website, so that we can help voters and clerks and poll workers work through those in real-time," Wolfe said. "It's something certainly given priority on Election Day, is to help triage any of those issues that are occurring."

Disability Rights Wisconsin says it will also maintain its voter hotline (844-DIS-VOTE) to elevate any concern raised about access.