A federal judge on August 31 suspended a ruling that would have prevented Wisconsin voters with disabilities from getting assistance when casting their ballots. The ruling will allow voters with a disability to have another person return absentee ballots on their behalf.
In July, a conservative majority in the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled, in a decision also banning the use of absentee ballots, that voters must mail ballots themselves. After the state court’s decision, voters with disabilities worried that they would be forced to choose between breaking the law or disenfranchisement.
US District Judge James Peterson’s decision states that the Voting Rights Act protects the right of voters with disabilities to receive any assistance required to cast their vote.
“Voters should not have to choose between exercising their federal rights and complying with state law,” Peterson wrote. But this is the situation the prosecutors find themselves in, in part because the defendants refused to provide the required explanations. If defendants cannot or will not provide assurances to plaintiffs 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 have the right to ask a person of their choice for such assistance.”
Law Forward, a nonprofit law firm focused on voting rights, has filed the suit on behalf of four disabled voters who do not use their arms and legs fully against the Wisconsin Election Commission and its director, Megan Wolf.
After Peterson’s decision, the Disability Rights Advocacy Group Wisconsin (DRW) celebrated protecting voting rights but said illegal barriers to voting should be opposed.
“This order confirms what DRW has always known: that voters with disabilities may receive assistance from a person of their choice in voting, including assistance with re-polling, and that these rights are protected by federal law,” the organization said in a statement. “We commend the efforts of the four disabled voters from Wisconsin in this lawsuit, and under the Forward Act who represented them. The Bureau for Women’s Rights (DRW) heard from angry, confused, and disenfranchised voters because Wisconsin courts and election officials did not uphold the protections provided by federal law for voters People with Disabilities. These voters should now feel confident asserting their voting rights, which are protected by federal law. Wisconsin must end these illegal barriers and ensure that the rights of voters with disabilities are protected and uniformly enforced throughout our state.”
The initial lawsuit that led to the state Supreme Court banning absentee ballots and temporarily barring disabled voters from obtaining re-ballot assistance, was brought by two Waukesha County voters and the right-wing law firm, Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty.
The lawsuit was filed after Republican voters turned against these voting methods after the 2020 election — claiming that drop-boxes are vulnerable to fraud and that assisting with re-polling is a nefarious practice they refer to as “ballot harvesting” or “card trading.”
After Peterson’s decision, the three Democrats on the Assembly’s Committee on Campaigns and Elections said the ruling was only needed due to Republican attacks on access to the vote.
A statement from Representatives Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire), Mark Spritzer (Dim-Bloit) and Lisa Sobeck (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.
They noted that Republicans were so intent on limiting voters’ ability to cast absentee votes that some voters with disabilities had no way to return their ballots and exercise their right to participate in our democracy.
“For years, Republicans have tried to limit voting in our state in order to dictate election results,” they continued. “The fact that they failed to do so in this case does not alter the immeasurable damage they have done to voting rights in our state. Republicans in the state legislature and the state Supreme Court have consistently failed to protect voting rights—and have chosen to actively undermine voting rights—at almost every opportunity. The ruling is a victory for voters, but it should not require a federal judge to defend voting rights in Wisconsin.”