Wisconsin voters with disabilities say their right to vote is at risk Many voters with disabilities rely on a loved one or caregiver to return their absentee ballot for them. Wisconsin's high court is weighing whether current state law allows for that help.

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

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A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Voters with disabilities are watching Republican efforts to tighten voting rules. And in Wisconsin, some say a state law puts their right to vote at risk. NPR's Barbara Sprunt reports.

MARTHA CHAMBERS: OK, so here's my living room. If you look, there's a river to your left.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: I meet Martha Chambers in her apartment in Milwaukee. She gives me a tour of her home, pointing out some of her favorite artwork.

CHAMBERS: And then over here on this wall, if you see Muhammad Ali - what's the saying? Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

SPRUNT: Chambers was injured in a horseback riding accident 27 years ago and is paralyzed from the neck down.

CHAMBERS: So I use my mouth to do a lot of things. Like, that stick there I use for those remotes and that keyboard.

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

CHAMBERS: I can sign the ballot and ask a witness to witness my ballot. 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.

SPRUNT: She doesn't know if one of her caregivers will be able to return her ballot in the next election because of the ongoing legal battle. A conservative legal group argues Wisconsin law doesn't allow for ballot drop boxes or for someone else to turn in a voter's absentee ballot. In January, a county judge sided with the group, and those provisions were banned for local elections in April. The state Supreme Court heard arguments last month and is currently deliberating the appeal.

STACY ELLINGEN: I do feel like I'm being punished just because I'm physically not able to put a ballot in a mailbox.

SPRUNT: That's Stacey Ellingen, a regular voter in Oshkosh. She has athetoid cerebral palsy and types into an app on her phone, which then speaks her words aloud.

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

SPRUNT: Barbara Beckert of Disability Rights Wisconsin says ballot return assistance is a longstanding practice, and the legal changes in April's elections caused chaos. She said voters weren't sure what to do, and clerks struggled to navigate the strict interpretation of state law and various federal protections.

BARBARA BECKERT: We have the Americans with Disabilities Act and we have Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act, which says a person with a disability may have assistance with voting from a person of their choice other than their employer or union representative. And we think that clearly allows them to have someone place their ballot in the mailbox for them.

SPRUNT: But Rick Esenberg, president of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which brought the lawsuit, says the law should be followed exactly as written - that only a voter can return their ballot.

RICK ESENBERG: The role of the court is to decide what the law requires. The role of the court is not to say, oh, gee, I think that's unreasonable, you should be able to give your ballot to your wife; or, oh, gee, I think that's unreasonable, you should be able to designate somebody to return your ballot. That's a legislative call.

SPRUNT: He says if people think the law is unfair, then it's up to state lawmakers to change it. He also points to programs and legal avenues where voters can seek to get an exemption from the law in order to have someone mail their ballot on their behalf.

ESENBERG: If it turns out that there is an individual down the road who needs some accommodation and are legally entitled to an accommodation, then they will be able to assert their right to that accommodation.

SPRUNT: But disability advocates say down the road is right now, that existing programs to help them aren't comprehensive and that going through a costly process to try to get an exemption is not equitable access to voting. Although Esenberg argued in court that it's illegal to have someone else mail a voter's absentee ballot, he suggested in our interview that enforcement isn't likely.

ESENBERG: If a person gives their ballot to a family member and their family member puts it in the mail, nobody is going to know that that happened. And, you know, I mean, there are a lot of things like that in the world. Like, you know, if a wife fills out a joint tax return and she just scrawls her husband's signature on that, yeah, she shouldn't have done that. But, you know, unless she's actually engaged in fraud, nothing is going to happen.

SPRUNT: Beckert of Disability Rights Wisconsin says that reasoning is absurd.

BECKERT: So the message to them is, oh, you can just tell your care worker, I'm asking you to commit a crime and mail this ballot for me. But don't worry. You won't be caught. You know, that's unacceptable. And honestly, it's very disturbing in terms of this idea that our laws are supposed to be selectively followed.

SPRUNT: Voters like Timothy Carey worry they have to choose between having someone mail their ballot and break the law or not vote at all. Carey, who lives in Appleton, is 49, and he says he's voted in every election since he turned 18. He has muscular dystrophy and is on a ventilator 24/7. He says following the legal case has been disheartening. He feels like people with disabilities have been forgotten.

TIMOTHY CAREY: People with disabilities matter. Yes, I'm here. Yes, I vote.

SPRUNT: "Yes, I'm here," he says. "Yes, I vote." The Wisconsin Supreme Court is expected to make a decision in June, roughly two months ahead of the battleground state's primary elections.

Barbara Sprunt, NPR News, Wisconsin.

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