by Henry Redman, Wisconsin Examiner
Wisconsin’s spring election is set for Tuesday with the high-profile — and record breakingly expensive — Supreme Court race on the top of the ticket, a handful of statewide ballot referenda and local races across the state.
In recent years, court cases and pandemics have frequently changed the landscape ahead of elections, but this year the rules remain unchanged ahead of Election Day.
Even though the state’s election laws and procedures have not been altered since last November’s midterms, there have been complaints that some elections clerks aren’t complying with the law guiding the votes of people with disabilities.
Last year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the use of absentee ballot drop boxes is illegal and that voters must return their own absentee ballots. A number of voters with disabilities filed a lawsuit, arguing that the requirement they return their own ballots was disenfranchising because many people’s disabilities make it impossible to physically place a ballot in a mailbox or return it to local election officials.
A federal judge agreed, ruling that under the Voting Rights Act, voters with disabilities must be allowed to get assistance when returning a ballot.
That ruling, however, has not stopped a number of municipal clerks across the state from telling voters in their communities that they must return their own ballots. First reported by the Associated Press last week, at least a dozen clerks stated on local websites that voters must return their own ballots.
Advocates for people with disabilities have raised the alarm, stating that the confusion over the law can turn people off from voting. Barbara Beckert, director of external advocacy for Disability Rights Wisconsin (DRW), says that because Wisconsin’s election administration is divided among more than 1,800 municipal clerks, that can lead to the law being interpreted differently in different communities across the state.
“I think we seem to have the most decentralized voting system in the country as we’ve always heard and that is really causing problems with how we’re seeing this play out, unfortunately,” she says. “All these clerks where they don’t have current information about ballot return assistance on their website, they all mention drop boxes aren’t allowed. It’s interesting that seems to be universally understood and communicated but it’s disappointing that with another law we don’t see the information being pushed to the community.”
The Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) sent an email to clerks in February, reminding them they should not violate the federal court order.
“This is a reminder that voters with disabilities are entitled to receive assistance completing and delivering their absentee ballots,” the email stated. “Some jurisdictions are inserting absentee ballot instructions that say assistance is prohibited, without noting the important exception for voters with disabilities. This is especially significant because last fall a federal judge issued a permanent injunction and declaration affirming the right of these voters to obtain assistance. Please ensure that your absentee ballot instructions do not contradict the federal court’s order.”
WEC spokesperson Riley Vetterkind said in an email that the agency has regularly reminded clerks about their obligations under the court order in recent weeks and issued guidance on how to comply with the order last September.
“After hearing that there might be some questions or uncertainty among clerks about last year’s court ruling on voters with a disability receiving assistance with ballot delivery, we are reaching out to clerks through a variety of channels to remind them that any Wisconsin voter who requires assistance with mailing or delivering their absentee ballot because of a disability must be permitted to receive such assistance by a person of the voter’s choice,” he said.
Beckert adds that her organization consistently hears of several ways in which voters with disabilities face barriers to voting, including being denied assistance filling out a ballot at the polls, curbside voting and voters being required to say their names and addresses out loud. If a person faces any challenges accessing the ballot because of a disability, they can call DRW’s voter hotline at 844-347-8683.
Absentee ballots can be returned to a voter’s polling place or local clerk’s offices until polls close at 8 p.m. on Tuesday.
In-person absentee voting is available in some municipalities until Sunday, although municipalities can choose to have an earlier cutoff date for that method. Hours and availability of in-person absentee voting can be found on municipal clerks’ websites and on MyVote.wi.Gov.
If a resident isn’t registered to vote, the deadline to do so ahead of the election is Friday. Check voter registration records and register to vote on MyVote.Wi.gov. People can also register to vote at the polls on Election Day.
To register to vote, a person needs a state-issued ID such as a driver’s license and a document with proof of residence. If voters have IDs that do not list their current address, they can provide a utility bill, lease document or bank statement to prove where they live.
Polls open at 7 a.m. on Tuesday and close at 8 p.m. Anyone waiting in line to vote when polls close should remain in line and will still be able to cast a ballot.
Election results will likely not be available as soon as polls close because several communities across the state, including Milwaukee which has the most voters, use a central count system for tallying absentee ballots. Central count locations are not allowed to start counting ballots until polls close.
While county clerks and media outlets report unofficial vote totals, election winners aren’t declared until the official canvassing process occurs at the local, county and state levels.
This story has been corrected to say it was the Voting Rights Act, not the Americans with Disabilities Act, which gives voters with disabilities the right to get assistance casting a ballot.
This story was written by Henry Redman, a staff reporter at the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.
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