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Wisconsin voters with disabilities say their right to vote is at risk

Barbara Sprunt, WPR | Published on 5/10/2022


Twenty-seven years ago, Martha Chambers was injured in a horseback riding accident that left her paralyzed from the neck down.

"I use my mouth to do a lot of things — like that mouth stick there, I use for those remotes and that keyboard," she describes while giving a tour of her apartment in Milwaukee, Wis.

Come election time, that's also how she fills out her absentee ballot.

"I have the ability to put a pen stick in my mouth, so I can fill it in and I can sign the ballot and ask a witness to witness my ballot," she says. "They would have to place the ballot in the envelope and actually put it in the mail or take it to the clerk. It would be difficult for me to put a ballot in my mouth and put it in a mailbox; I couldn't reach that mailbox."

But Chambers doesn't know if one of her caregivers will be allowed to return her ballot in the next election because of an ongoing legal battle in Wisconsin.

In January, a Waukesha County judge sided with a conservative legal group in a lawsuit and ruled that ballot drop boxes, which were widely used in the 2020 election, aren't permitted under state law and that voters must return their absentee ballots themselves.

An appeals court temporarily blocked the order for primaries in February, but the ban was in effect for local elections in April. The Wisconsin Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the appeal of the case last month and is expected to make a decision in June — two months before the state's crucial statewide primary elections.

Chambers says regardless of the court's decision, she still plans to vote, but acknowledges others may not.

"It would be illegal and the individual who would assist me would be committing a crime, crazy as that may seem," she says with a sigh. "It's sad because there's a large group of people that just won't do it because they think it's illegal or they're not going to count it, and why bother?"

"I do feel like I'm being punished"

Nationally, the 2020 election saw a big uptick in voters with disabilities casting ballots, as many states took steps to ease access amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The share of people with disabilities who reported having a problem voting dropped from 26.1% in 2012 to 11.4% in 2020, according to a study from Rutgers University.

But now, many voters with disabilities are warily following efforts across the country by Republican-led states to tighten voting rules following the 2020 election, in what conservatives say are steps to shore up election integrity.

In Wisconsin, the crux of the legal case over drop boxes and returning ballots is the interpretation of a portion of state law that details the absentee ballot return process.

"The envelope shall be mailed by the elector, or delivered in person, to the municipal clerk issuing the ballot or ballots," the statute reads.

Rick Esenberg, president of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which represented the plaintiffs in the original lawsuit, says the law is explicit.

"I think [the court] ought to read the law as it is written, and say that the law means what it says," he says.

But many voters with disabilities — along with others who live in congregate settings, like those incarcerated or in nursing homes — say a strict interpretation of the law leaves them behind.

"I do feel like I'm being punished just because I'm physically not able to put a ballot in a mailbox," says Stacy Ellingen, a regular absentee voter in Oshkosh.

She has athetoid cerebral palsy and uses an app on her phone that takes her typed text and speaks her words aloud.

"My caregivers help me fill out the ballot and put it in the mailbox. It's literally the only way for me to vote," she says. "If this stands, I wouldn't be able to vote for the people actually making the decisions that affect my life."

One in five adults in Wisconsin has a disability of some kind, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.