A federal judge has ruled that disabled voters in Wisconsin must be permitted to obtain assistance in returning their absentee ballots to local election authorities.
A recent ruling of the Wisconsin state Supreme Court insisted that individual voters and individual voters alone were allowed to return their absentee ballots in person to officials running elections. (The same ruling blocked most ballot drop boxes in Wisconsin.) A lawsuit from disabled Wisconsin voters sought the restoration of the option for receiving additional assistance with returning absentee ballots. If non-disabled voters can freely return their ballots in person or via the mail, then why shouldn’t both options be freely available to disabled voters? Maintaining a set-up that functions otherwise seems like a brazen form of discrimination on the basis of disability, no matter any originally claimed intentions.
U.S. District Judge James D. Peterson handed down the new ruling, “saying that voters who have difficulty returning their own ballot can choose someone to do so for them,” as the Associated Press recaps. Protections for disabled voters seeking to participate in absentee voting were previously available in Wisconsin, and at no point did any real-world evidence emerge indicating that there was a systematic fraud problem with any portion of the electoral process — including disabled voters returning their absentee ballots — in Wisconsin. As summarized by the voting rights organization Democracy Docket, Peterson cited the Voting Rights Act in outlining his decision. The original case pointed to other pieces of federal law as well, including the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and both the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
“Voters shouldn’t have to choose between exercising their federal rights and complying with state law,” Peterson said this week. “But 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. The court will issue a declaration of plaintiffs’ rights under the VRA and an injunction that ensures their rights will be upheld. Because the VRA provides plaintiffs with complete relief, it isn’t necessary to consider plaintiffs’ other claims.” The ruling will re-open opportunities for disabled voters to receive assistance in returning ballots during this year’s elections.
Although the ruling from the state Supreme Court that drove recent concerns singled out the return of absentee ballots to local election authorities in person, a subsequent reference by Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe that individual voters were also required to mail their own ballots added — no matter any subsequent attempts at a clarification — to the confusion and the impression laws could and would be interpreted to block disabled voters from obtaining needed assistance. Peterson, meanwhile, directed that municipal clerks handling local election matters across Wisconsin be promptly informed (within a little over a week) of the legal options held by disabled voters. Prior to Peterson’s ruling, the U.S. Justice Department itself got involved, filing a collection of arguments outlining the federal position. “The rights conferred by Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act and Title II of the ADA are rights squarely guaranteed, regardless of whether state laws or provisions otherwise limit such assistance,” the department said in court.