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Voters with disabilities fight for absentee ballots as states curtail ballot boxes

Voting with Disability
Posted at 7:20 AM, Jun 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-16 16:18:24-04

MILWAUKEE, WI — Following the 2020 elections and unproven accusations of widespread voter fraud, several states passed laws to restrict absentee voting. In Wisconsin, the issue is now going to the state’s highest court.

But disability rights advocates argue the restrictions directly conflict with federal law.

When he was 2 years old, Bill Crowley sustained a spinal cord injury in a car crash. Being quadriplegic never stopped him from using his voice.

“I vote pretty much every election that there is. Both, the bigger, national ones and down to local races,” said Crowley.

He needs the assistance of family, friends or caregivers to put his absentee ballot in the mailbox and has always voted that way.

“Due to my spinal cord injury and quadriplegia, I'm unable to physically do that myself," he said.

Trudy Le Beau of Sheboygan, Wis. votes the same way.

“I don't cast a ballot without assistance,” she said.

She was diagnosed with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis and can no longer move her arms or legs.

“If I show up at the polls, a poll worker has to be with me, fill out the ballot and insert it into the machine for me,” said Le Beau.

But she says getting that same kind of assistance to mail an absentee ballot could now be deemed voter fraud.

Following the 2020 election, a conservative legal group challenged the use of absentee ballot drop boxes in Wisconsin and the legality of having someone other than the voter mail or return their ballot for them.

In January, a Waukesha County judge ruled in their favor.

“The Teigen case would not allow a voter to have anyone other than the voter themselves mail or deliver their ballot,” said Barbara Beckert, director of external affairs with Disability Rights Wisconsin. “Well, that's a big problem for a lot of people with disabilities.”

The case has now made its way up to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. But disability rights groups have opposed the interpretaion of the law, insisting that restricting absentee voting conflicts with federal protections for voters with disabilities.

“We believe that the rights of people with disabilities to have assistance from a person of their choice with return of their ballot are protected by federal law,” said Beckert.

“There's nowhere in Wisconsin law you're going to find a prohibition against returning your friend's absentee ballot or placing your own ballot into a drop box. It does not exist,” said Scott Thompson with the nonprofit Law Forward. They represent Disability Rights Wisconsin, The League of Women Voters and Wisconsin Faith Voices in the case.

“Voters with disabilities have an incredibly broad set of protections in federal law that allows them to vote, and sometimes it's in different mechanisms,” said Thompson.

Le Beau said without assistance, she would literally have to deliver her ballot with her teeth or lose her right to vote.

“I agree that our elections need to be as secure as possible, but not to the point of taking the voice away from people,” she said.

Crowley said he would do whatever it takes to vote but fears others may not.

“I'm determined to make my vote and voice heard. But I know for many people that this added barrier would in many cases prevent them from voting at all,” said Crowley.

A decision from the state supreme court could come as early as this week.