Court victories give cautious hope to voters with disabilities
More than 20 states have passed a wave of hurdles to the voting process in recent years. Protecting the rights of voters with disabilities is an area where advocates have successfully pushed back. (Stacey Westcott/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Paralyzed from the neck down, downtown Milwaukee resident Martha Chambers struggles to vote.
She can use a mouth stick to mark her ballot and sign her name on an absentee ballot, but she has no way to fold the ballot, put it back in the envelope, or put it back in. the mailbox.
Pushed by its conservative majority, the Wisconsin Supreme Court in July banned assistance in the absentee voting process. After the decision, Chambers feared her carer – who also gets her out of bed in the morning, brushes her teeth and puts her clothes on – would turn into a criminal for ensuring she could participate in the democratic process. Chambers said she was effectively disenfranchised.
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“It was just sad,” she told Stateline. “There were a lot of voters with disabilities saying, ‘What am I doing? “”
Chambers was one of four voters with disabilities who sued the Wisconsin Elections Commission in July in federal court, seeking the reversal of the decision. In late August, U.S. Chief District Judge James Peterson ruled that the state Supreme Court’s decision violated Chambers’ rights under federal law.
“Voters should not have to choose between exercising their federal rights and upholding state law,” Peterson wrote in his decision.
The decision in Wisconsin was one of two major legal victories in federal court for voters with disabilities this summer. In June, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman struck down parts of a Texas law that prohibited certain aids for voters with disabilities and voters with limited English proficiency.
The cases are part of the larger, ongoing battle over access to the vote. More than 20 Republican-run states have enacted a wave of hurdles to the voting process over the past two years, making it harder to vote — especially by mail — in the name of preventing voter fraud, which is rare. in the United States and did not affect the results of the 2020 presidential election. Suffrage advocates have challenged many laws. Protecting the right to vote of people with disabilities is one of the few areas in which they have succeeded – and even found some consensus.
After many difficult months of voters with disabilities trying to navigate restrictive new election laws, these legal victories are welcome, said Rebecca Cokley, program manager for the rights of people with disabilities in the United States at the Ford Foundation, a New York-based philanthropy that provides grants to organizations that lead efforts to vote for people with disabilities.
“Anything that upholds the right of people with disabilities to be able to vote and participate as a fundamental cornerstone of democracy is a win,” she said.
Cokley, who is a short person, knows that something as simple as the height of tables at polling stations can easily impair her ability to vote. Disabilities are diverse and affect 38 million voters nationwide, she said.
Disability rights advocates hope the victories will set a legal precedent for residents of other states to successfully challenge restrictive new election laws.
A fight for support
The Wisconsin case stems from a lawsuit filed by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty in 2021 in Waukesha County Circuit Court on behalf of two voters. In 2020, the state Election Commission issued guidelines encouraging the use of ballot boxes due to the health threat of in-person voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. Third-party assistance in returning ballots for voters with disabilities was a precedent that had been in place for decades.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty argued that there was nothing in state law that allowed anyone other than a voter to return an absentee ballot or allowed ballot boxes. Allowing others to collect and deliver ballots could open the voting system to fraud, the institute argued. The court’s conservative majority agreed, making it illegal to use most of the state’s 528 ballot boxes and help others return mail-in ballots.
“A mail-in ballot must be returned by mail or the voter must personally deliver it to the City Clerk at the Clerk’s Office or other designated site,” Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote in the majority opinion in July.
But that’s impossible for Timothy Carey, an Appleton, Wis. resident with Duchenne muscular dystrophy who lives on a ventilator. Her nurse assists her in most aspects of her life, including helping her complete her mail-in ballot. He was one of four plaintiffs who sued the Wisconsin Election Commission, represented by Law Forward, a Madison, Wis.-based litigation firm, after the state Supreme Court ruling.
“It just wasn’t fair,” Carey said in an interview. “I wanted to make sure we didn’t have to break the law to exercise our right to vote.
By limiting the state court ruling last month, Federal Judge Peterson “restored some of the dignity that is due to them in an open democracy,” said Scott Thompson, staff attorney at Law Forward.
“It was really a defense of the right to vote,” he said. “Extreme conspiracy theories drive policy change. In Wisconsin, voters with disabilities paid the price. They were literally almost disenfranchised.
But the federal decision did not address the state court’s decision to ban the use of drop boxes, thus keeping them illegal.
Luke Berg, associate attorney at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, said his organization does not disagree with the federal decision. If a voter is unable to mark their ballot, they should be given assistance, he said. But he stressed that third-party assistance should only be given to voters with disabilities.
“We want everyone who can and wants to vote, but we also want elections to be secure,” he said. “I don’t think eliminating ballot boxes or requiring people to return a ballot is a real barrier for anyone. It’s very simple to drop a ballot in a mailbox or return it in person.
Since the federal court ruling, the Wisconsin Elections Commission this month issued new guidelines to the state’s 1,850 municipal clerks stating that any voter who needs assistance delivering a ballot due to a disability must be allowed this aid, unless the aid is offered by an employer. or officer or agent of the voters’ union. Residents of Wisconsin need only self-identify as having a disability to be eligible for assistance.
The federal decision, however, did not satisfy Berg’s concerns about what he called the integrity of the electoral process. The state legislature, he said, should enact a signed certification process for the person assisting the disabled voter that they have been authorized to return the ballot.
Barbara Beckert, director of the Milwaukee office of Disability Rights Wisconsin, a nonprofit advocacy and education organization, remains cautious ahead of the midterms. Because the decision came so close to the election, she said many clerks were unable to reprint mail-in ballot instructions that may have old rules for returning ballots.
“I hope everything goes well and that people understand their rights and can claim them,” she said, “but I’m a little suspicious about how this will evolve based on past experiences. “.
Preparing for November
In Texas, a federal judge in June struck down parts of the state’s sweeping 2021 law that restricted several aspects of the mail-in ballot process. The judge specifically struck down provisions that limited the types of assistance voters with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency can receive from others, as well as other limitations on how people can help voters vote. State officials did not appeal the decision.
The ruling gave disability rights advocates time to educate voters and poll workers to avoid confusion ahead of the November election, said Molly Broadway, training and technical support specialist at Disability Rights. Texas. Broadway crisscrossed the state to assuage anxieties over the 2021 law.
“I think it will really help people who need the kinds of assistance that were previously prohibited and hopefully it will make it easier to approach voters,” she said. “But there is still some anxiety.”
There are even more challenges for voters with disabilities ahead of November’s midterm elections, the Ford Foundation’s Cokley said. But to help overcome these barriers, she said, voters with disabilities should not only be prepared with voter protection hotline phone numbers when they go to the polls, but also to participate in as poll workers.
“I don’t know a single voter with a disability who goes to the polls and expects no problems,” she said. “But because of that, we are extremely aware of our right to vote, what may or may not be asked of us and how best to organize our access to the ballot box.”
Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reports and analysis on trends in state politics.
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