By Karen Stokes
Republicans have continuously initiated efforts to create more restrictive voting laws.
Last month, the conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, in a decision that also banned the use of absentee ballot drop boxes, ruled that voters must mail their ballots themselves. Following that decision, voters with disabilities worried that they’d be forced to choose between breaking the law or not being able to vote.
Following the 2020 election, a lawsuit that led to the State Supreme Court prohibiting absentee ballot drop boxes and temporarily stopping voters with disabilities from getting ballot return assistance was brought by two Waukesha County voters and the right-wing law firm, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
The reason for the lawsuit was alleging that drop boxes are vulnerable to fraud and that ballot return assistance is “ballot harvesting” or “ballot trafficking.”
Law Forward, a voting-rights focused non-profit law firm, filed a lawsuit on behalf of four voters with disabilities who do not have full use of their arms and legs against the Wisconsin Elections Commission and its administrator, Meagan Wolfe.
U.S. District Judge James D. Peterson issued his order ahead of the November election saying that voters who have difficulty returning their own ballot can choose someone to do so for them.
“Voters shouldn’t have to choose between exercising their federal rights and complying with state law,” Peterson wrote in the final ruling in a lawsuit filed by four people in Wisconsin with disabilities.
“That is the position that plaintiffs find themselves in, and that is in part because defendants have refused to provide needed clarification. If defendants cannot or will not give plaintiffs assurances that their right to vote will be protected, this court must do so. The Voting Rights Act is clear: disabled voters who need assistance in returning an absentee ballot are entitled to ask a person of their choosing for that assistance,” Peterson wrote.
Peterson’s order gives the elections commission until Sept. 9 to notify all of the state’s more than 1,800 municipal clerks of the rights disabled voters have to receive assistance under the Voting Rights Act.
Peterson signaled his desire in a hearing last week to quickly issue an order in support of the plaintiffs that would provide clarity. Clerks must send out absentee ballots for the November election by Sept. 22.
Today, Wisconsin voters had their voting rights confirmed by a federal judge instead of by the laws of our state,” the statement from Reps. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire), Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) and Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) said. “The case decided today was a direct result of Republican efforts to undermine voting rights in Wisconsin and restrict the ability of voters to return their ballots. Republicans were so intent on limiting voters’ ability to cast their absentee ballot that some voters with disabilities would have had no way of returning their ballot and exercising their right to participate in our democracy.
Milwaukee resident Rosalind Oates and her family have been loyal voters for over 40 years. Recently her husband experienced an illness and is permanently disabled. Ballot return assistance for her husband is a necessity.
“For those who aren’t handicapped it just means a simple trip to and from their voting location but for a handicapped person it could be an arduous process,” said Oates. “Being able to assist the disabled in voting allows their voice to be heard. Any individual’s right to vote should definitely be “supported” and not “suppressed.”
“For years, Republicans have attempted to limit voting in our state in order to dictate the results of elections,” they continued. “The fact that they have failed to do so in this case does not change the immeasurable damage that they have done to voting rights in our state. Republicans in the Legislature and on the State Supreme Court have consistently failed to protect voting rights – and actively chosen to undermine voting rights – at nearly every opportunity. Today’s ruling is a victory for voters, but it should not require a federal judge to defend voting rights in Wisconsin