Wisconsin’s disabled voters face barriers amid ‘massive confusion’

<span>Photograph: Morry Gash/AP</span>
Photograph: Morry Gash/AP

As Wisconsin’s 4 April supreme court election approaches, disabled voters in the state are pushing elections officials to prioritize protecting the right to vote absentee and with assistance.

“I always, always vote absentee,” said Stacy Ellingen, a Wisconsin voter who has cerebral palsy and requires assistance in voting. “If absentee voting wasn’t an option, I honestly wouldn’t be able to vote in most elections.”

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In February 2022, the Wisconsin supreme court ruled that voters must turn in their own ballots, making no exception for people with disabilities. Although a federal judge later clarified that voters with disabilities did, in fact, reserve the right to assisted voting, the temporary ban has generated lasting confusion at polling places and, in some cases, disenfranchised voters with disabilities.

“Municipal clerks are telling people that they cannot accept ballots on someone else’s behalf, which isn’t true,” said Ellingen, who works as a social media ambassador for the Wisconsin Disability Vote Coalition. “This whole thing has caused massive confusion among the disability community and has led to some people not voting.”

Staff at the advocacy group Disability Rights Wisconsin say they have received reports of elections clerks rejecting absentee ballots from disabled voters as recently as March. Despite federal protections, this is just one of many barriers to voting that voters with disabilities face in Wisconsin and across the United States.

The Americans with Disabilities Act tasks local governments with ensuring disabled people have equal voting access as non-disabled voters, while the Voting Rights Act mandates that voters with disabilities receive necessary assistance in casting a ballot. Specific accessibility measures vary by locality, and enforcement of those protections are uneven – a 2017 study commissioned by the US Government Accountability Office, for example, found 60% of surveyed polling places had one or more physical impediments.

Barbara Beckert, the Milwaukee office director of Disability Rights Wisconsin, pointed to inadequate transportation, voter identification laws and misinformation about legally guaranteed protections as a few of the primary barriers voters with disabilities face in the state. Often, Beckert said, “election officials don’t know about accommodations or don’t provide them – or voters aren’t aware of what their rights are. That’s a huge barrier.”

Stringent requirements for the way ballots are marked can disqualify people with disabilities from having their votes counted, as well.

“In a recent election, the person assisting me put the address on the wrong line on the envelope,” said Ellingen. Ellingen got a letter in the mail requesting her and the person who assisted her to modify the ballot in person at the clerk’s office. “Fortunately, my assistant happened to be my mom, so we were able to make that happen,” said Ellingen. “Going into the clerk’s office is impossible for many people.”

Similarly, one voter in a small town in southeast Wisconsin says she was initially rejected while trying to vote absentee from the hospital in August. The voter, who preferred not to be named due to concerns about retaliation, asked her father to return her absentee ballot to her polling place – but he was told he could not cast a ballot for his daughter.

“I panicked at first,” she said. “Even though it was just the primary, I still feel it’s important to have that access to that right to vote.”

Only after presenting the clerk with a form letter outlining her rights under federal law was her ballot accepted.

Martha Chambers, who voted with assistance in defiance of the 2022 ban, joined the lawsuit that ultimately succeeded in arguing that the law preventing caregivers and family from assisting disabled voters violated the Voting Rights Act. Recently she joined other disabled activists and a patchwork of statewide organizations and voters at the grassroots to combat misinformation and push the state’s elections commission to take measures to protect the rights of voters with disabilities. Their work is the continuation of a years-long effort to increase accessibility in voting by disabled Wisconsin residents.

The coalition has used social media to post voting deadlines and information about legally guaranteed voting accommodations. In addition to spreading the word online, Chambers spends time every election cycle mining through her contact list and asking around about disabled voters who do not use the internet.

“This is totally grassroots,” said Chambers. “I’ve always been the person to pick up the phone and just say, ‘Hi, how are you doing? Do you need assistance?’”

On 16 January, Chambers submitted a list of suggestions to the Wisconsin Elections Commission for improved accessibility in absentee voting.

“The option of voting absentee is extremely important to me,” she wrote. “Since I have had my disability (nearly 30 years), I have voted mostly by absentee. The ability to vote absentee is the best option for me because the barriers to get to the polls in time can be very difficult for me and many others who vote.”

The Wisconsin elections commission wrote in an email to the Guardian that the agency provides “guidance to election clerks and to voters in our communications” about the legality of assistance for disabled voters and pointed to a February post on Twitter outlining those rights.

Wisconsin elections are highly decentralized, falling under the jurisdiction of 1,850 municipalities. For the top elections officials in the state to ensure all municipalities on the same page would require a concerted mobilization of clerks and poll workers. To mitigate confusion at the local level, Chambers and the Disability Vote Coalition have recommended incorporating information about accommodations and assisted voting into election clerk trainings and in online resources for poll workers.

Despite months of effort and multiple petitions from Chambers and groups like Disability Vote Coalition, the Wisconsin elections commission (WEC) has not inserted language reaffirming the right to assisted voting into the state’s uniform instructions for absentee voting. A spokesperson for the WEC said that the organization “will be considering a new absentee certificate envelope and accompanying uniform instructions for use in the 2024 elections”.

In an email, Beckert, of Wisconsin Disability Vote Coalition, wrote: “It’s disappointing that WEC has not updated the instructions,” and added that “We continue to hear that some municipal clerks are restricting these rights. It’s very confusing and upsetting for voters.”