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The pandemic has helped improve accessibility, but new electoral barriers in states like Wisconsin are cutting gains for thousands of voters with disabilities.
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A woman votes at an official ballot box in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on the first day of in-person early voting in the 2020 general election. Since then, ballot boxes have been banned. Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images
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Thirty years ago, a horseback riding incident left Martha Chambers, a Milwaukee landlady, paralyzed from the neck down. The wheelchair gives him some independence: he drives it using his head and uses assistive devices called chopsticks to perform other tasks, such as writing or using a laptop.
When it’s election season, however, she can’t put her ballot in a mailbox. She relied on relatives, a caregiver or a friend to physically place her ballot there. Now, under a recent Wisconsin Circuit Court ruling that only one voter, not a candidate, can vote absentee, it has effectively become illegal for Chambers to vote.
“Since I have my disability, I have always voted absent…because the obstacles to getting to the polls on time can be very difficult for me,” she wrote in testimony used in court. and compiled by the nonprofit, federally funded organization, Handicap. Wisconsin Rights.
Testimonials from Chambers and other Wisconsin voters, which describe the painstaking efforts they must go through to vote in their state, help create a picture of how new nationwide voting restrictions present new challenges for voters. disabled. . A concerted nationwide effort by Republicans, including in Wisconsin, sought to reverse the voting extension by shortening voting hours, limiting absentee and early voting, limiting drop box availability, establishing requirements additional voter identification for postal voting, and many more. All of these measures make it difficult for people with disabilities to vote, activists and suffrage experts said, and the efforts are already having a huge effect.
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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26% of American adults live with some type of disability; many have mobility problems or difficulty knowing and have problems living on their own. Despite these challenges, people with disabilities saw a significant increase in voter turnout in 2020, thanks in part to nationwide efforts to make voting easier during the pandemic. About 17.7 million people with disabilities (62% of all voters with disabilities) reported voting in the November 2020 general election, compared to 16 million (56%) in the 2016 general election, according to data from the Research Program on Disability from Rutgers University and the United States Election Assistance Commission.
Mail-in voting increased during the pandemic for people with and without disabilities, but people with disabilities were more likely to use this option: just over half of voters with disabilities voted by mail before Election Day, compared to 40% of voters without disabilities, according to Rutgers research.
In Wisconsin, however, ballot assistance was banned for the state’s mayor on April 5, overwhelming a hotline created by the Wisconsin disability rights group with calls from voters wondering if their ballots would be counted.
“These restrictions are problematic on so many levels, not just for people with disabilities, but especially for people with disabilities, and there’s a lot at stake with the upcoming election in August,” said Barbara Beckert, director of external advocacy at the south. -is. from the country. Wisconsin Disability Rights Wisconsin, who personally provides the hotline and informs voters with disabilities of their rights and verifies polling places.
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In Wisconsin, a bipartisan effort to distribute more than 500 ballots as a safe way to vote in absentia also led to high turnout – for the 2020 general election, more than 72% of voters cast ballots. of State. In June 2021, two voters, backed by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, sued the Wisconsin Election Commission in
, challenging the legality of ballots for postal voting. Plaintiffs asked the court to ban delivery boxes statewide and ask voters to send or return their own ballots directly to clerks. Under their interpretation of Wisconsin law that refers to mail-in ballots, a voter must physically mail or deliver only their own ballot, not someone else’s.
Voters who filed the lawsuit have raised concerns about “ballot harvesting,” a term related to mail-in conspiracy theories Conservatives use to describe the collection and submission of ballots by a person or organization. organization on behalf of voters. It is illegal to vote for harvesting or “vote peddling” in states like Georgia and Arizona; In January, a conservative state judge joined the Wisconsin plaintiffs, blocking the use of ballot boxes and banning people from returning ballots in someone else’s Wisconsin name.
Despite appeals from organizations including Disability Rights Wisconsin, the state Supreme Court ultimately upheld the lower court’s decision, allowing the bans to go into effect for the April 5 election. A final decision in that case is expected in June, and the outcome could affect two major primary races in August: Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican Sen. Ron Johnson are both seeking re-election.
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“2020 was probably the most affordable election we’ve seen,” said Michelle Bishop, director of voter access and engagement for the National Disability Rights Network. “We have made many changes in response to Covid, which have also proven to be best practices for making voting more accessible to people with disabilities. But we are still rejecting all of these positive changes.”
People line up to vote in Wisconsin’s spring primary on April 7, 2020 in Milwaukee. Due to pandemic-related changes, several voters with disabilities were able to vote in that year’s election. Sara Stathas for the Washington Post
Wisconsin isn’t the only state to implement new restrictions that make it especially difficult for voters with disabilities to access and vote.
In March town hall, Texas rejected nearly 23,000 mail-in ballots, or about 13% of the votes cast, an Associated Press survey found, an unusually high number given the number of rejected ballots. in the general election, generally not exceeding 2 percent. Most ballots were rejected on the grounds that voters did not meet identification requirements established under new Texas election law. The law requires voters to provide their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number when requesting a ballot by mail and to write the same number on the ballot when it is mailed. Democrats have argued that the new ID requirement simply makes it harder to vote, and disability rights activists point to how the requirement has already affected voters with disabilities.
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Florida and Georgia have passed similar bills imposing restrictions on mail-in voting. Multiple states can join the effort. According to the Brennan Center, a nonprofit liberal law and public policy institute, at least 18 bills in five states would require voters to provide a driver’s license number, Social Security number or ID number. registration on the electoral lists when applying for a postal vote. An Arizona bill would create essentially the same effect as Wisconsin’s ban, requiring voters to show identification when returning a ballot by mail. The ID must be that of the person delivering the ballot.
“We are looking at a number of states that are restricting ballot boxes, canceling onboard voting, blocking food and water from going online, adding new ID requirements, shortening times to send and request mail-in ballots and restrict who can submit a ballot,” said Sarah Blahovec, director of voting and civic engagement at the National Council for Independent Living. “These changes provide fewer options for people with disabilities , which then worsens with other problems. There are people with disabilities in poor and minority communities who are even more affected than if you only look at it from a disability perspective and don’t consider these other factors. »
At every step, people with disabilities face barriers that make it difficult to vote. They may not have access to transportation, they may have difficulty getting out of their community due to health issues, or their polling stations may not be accessible. Many people with disabilities are not drivers.
In Wisconsin, 30% of the population are non-drivers, which means they often don’t have a driver’s license and the state doesn’t have automatic voter registration. For those for whom transportation is not an obstacle, they must navigate during the limited hours of the Division of Motor Vehicles, the only place where they can obtain state ID to vote. If an elector lives in a
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