Voters With Disabilities Worry About Their Ability To Cast Ballots In Wisconsin : The NPR Politics Podcast A court case has some voters with disabilities worried that they will not be able to rely on family or caretakers for help casting a vote without breaking the law, despite federal protections.

This episode: White House correspondent Scott Detrow, political reporter Barbara Sprunt, and voting reporter Miles Parks.

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Voters With Disabilities Worry About Their Ability To Cast Ballots In Wisconsin

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EMILY: Hi. This is Emily (ph) calling from Yokota Air Base in Tokyo, Japan, where I just watched Air Force One take off for its long trip back to the U.S. This podcast was recorded at...

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It is 1:35 Eastern on Tuesday, May 24.

EMILY: Things may have changed by the time you hear it. All right. Here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DETROW: Our friend Asma Khalid is on that airplane right now. And as we tape, it is in between Alaska and Washington, D.C., slowly making its way back to the U.S.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi to Asma. I'm sure she'll listen to this, you know, while she's, like, passing in and out of sleep.

DETROW: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: I'm Barbara Sprunt. I cover politics.

PARKS: I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

DETROW: Miles and Barbara, I'm very excited to podcast with both of you for the first time. You are two of my favorite NPR people, so it's fun to be on this podcast with you.

SPRUNT: I'm excited. It's finally happening.

PARKS: Yeah, I wouldn't miss it.

DETROW: So we are here with the two of you talking about voting, which is no surprise whenever you hear, Miles, of course. But voters are at the polls right now in two states that that recently passed high profile new voting laws, Georgia and Texas. We will talk about that tomorrow. Today, we're going to focus on another state, Wisconsin. And here we're talking about a judicial ruling. The Wisconsin Supreme Court is weeks away from giving guidance on an appeal of a case from January when a county judge sided with a conservative legal group on the question of whether voters in Wisconsin can continue to get assistance to return ballots. Barbara, you were in Wisconsin reporting on this. Tell us a little bit more about this case and why it matters.

SPRUNT: Yeah. So a county judge ruled earlier this year that ballot drop boxes, which were widely used in the 2020 election, aren't allowed under state law, and that voters have to return their absentee ballots themselves - so either putting them in the mailbox or giving them to a county clerk.

DETROW: Which, for a lot of people, not a big issue. But you focused on a group of people where this is a big issue.

SPRUNT: That's right. I mean, the case sort of centers on this statute of existing state law that governs how someone can return a ballot. And the initial lawsuit that was brought by a conservative legal group said, look, it's explicit. It says only a voter can do this. And if you don't follow this strict interpretation of the law, it opens the door to party activists and volunteers collecting ballots. But many voters with disabilities, as you just alluded to, followed that ruling and said, hey, wait a minute. This applies to us. Many of us rely on family members or home health aides to return our ballots on our behalf if we physically can't put it in the mailbox.

DETROW: Yeah. And under this ruling, they just can't do that.

SPRUNT: Yes. So the initial ruling in January was sort of halted for some local elections in February, but it was in full effect - the ban - in April. And so voters sort of got a taste of this confusion around the process in April and are kind of waiting for this guidance to be determined on the appeal from the court, which we expect to happen, you know, in the next month.

PARKS: It feels, Barbara, like - it reminds me a lot of the reporting you did with Juana Summers a couple months ago in Texas, where they also similarly passed, in that case, passed a new law that restricted drive-through voting, restricted the sorts of people who could help people who were voting by mail return their ballots. And it kind of feels like, I think, in a lot of these cases, there's this push and pull when I talked to election experts between security and accessibility. And when these laws are passed, I think the disability rights advocates I've talked to kind of feel like lawmakers are not thinking about the actual costs when these sorts of rules are changed.

SPRUNT: That's exactly right. I mean, I met with voters and advocates who said that they just felt very disappointed by the whole process, and that they felt like the disability community had just been forgotten, as you said, it had been left behind. One woman I met with, Martha Chambers (ph), is paralyzed from the neck down. She was in a horseback riding accident decades ago. And she relies on having her caregiver return her absentee ballot for her. And she described that process.

MARTHA 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: And, you know, she's giving you this image. But, I mean, the reality is, like, this is the case for lots of people. And people who want to vote have voted regularly and rely on ballot return assistance in order to do so. Another person who is a regular absentee voter, Stacey Ellen (ph), told me that she feels very frustrated about having her voice possibly not represented in the legal process. She has athetoid cerebral palsy. And so she typed her answers during our interview into an app on her phone, which then spoke her words aloud.

STACEY ELLEN: (Through automated voice) My caregivers help me fill out the balance 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.

DETROW: Miles, you cover voting all over the place. And I'm wondering, have you heard conversations about what the possible solution is for some of these real challenges?

PARKS: One possible solution is that - stop trying to fix problems that aren't there. I think the push across the country to get, you know, kind of politicized drop boxes, people who focus on elections say drop boxes are actually much more secure than, you know, the Postal Service where, you know, you put a ballot in the box, election official comes and picks up that ballot. Whereas when you use the Postal Service to mail a ballot, it's getting touched by so many more hands along that process.

But I think more broadly, what's really interesting is a few counties across the country have started experimenting, actually, with internet voting for voters with disabilities, basically letting those those voters vote from home. And when I talk to election experts, obviously, this is a really big push towards accessibility. But most folks feel like this is probably too far, that maybe you're giving up too much security in those cases. So I doubt that that's going to be something that becomes the norm across the country. But it is interesting that there are election officials across the country thinking creatively about this problem.

DETROW: Interesting. All right. We're going to take a quick break. We'll talk more about this when we get back.

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DETROW: We are back. And, Barbara, you mentioned that a conservative legal group was involved in this case. You talked to them. And what's the best way to frame their concerns and why they're there pushing for these restrictions to be enforced so literally?

SPRUNT: Yeah. So I spoke with Rick Esenberg. He's the president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, and they represented the plaintiffs that originally brought this lawsuit. And he emphasized a lot to me in our interview that the role of a court is not to decide what's fair or not fair. That is for a legislature. So he said, hey, if people think this is unfair the way it's written, it's up to state lawmakers to change it.

RICK ESENBERG: The role of the court is to decide what the law requires. 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: Another element of this is that in the oral arguments, which he participated in on the appeal - and I should say as well as my interview with him - he said, look, there's no evidence that a strict interpretation of this law leaves voters with disabilities behind. He repeatedly said things like, if there turns out to be someone out there who requires an accommodation, they can seek a legal exception.

DETROW: But you talk to people who did clearly have these challenges and are not able to vote under the letter of the law right now. How can they vote? I mean, what is what is the answer for them right now?

SPRUNT: Right. Well, they were insulted by the premise that this is a hypothetical situation. They said, look, it's not a secret. This is the reality of the world that we live in, the state that we live in. There are people who require assistance in returning their ballot, and without that, they cannot vote. And they also said, look, a legal exception to a law is not equitable access to voting. Right? Like, this could take time, it could take resources. That's not, you know, equal voting. And I asked Esenberg about this, this whole business about getting an exemption. And he answered by saying that, in all likelihood, that's not how this would play out.

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.

DETROW: So on one hand, he's saying it is very important that the legal, you know, the letter of the law is followed and you need to change the laws if you disagree. And the other hand, he's saying, look, this isn't going to be enforced anyway. It doesn't matter.

SPRUNT: It was a really surprising thing to hear. Voters and advocates have said, we want to follow the law. And, I mean, these are people who would be asking in many cases their caregivers to, for all purposes, commit a crime by returning their ballots. And so, you know, they say it's not equitable access to voting. And it - the logic just does not make sense.

DETROW: Wait. So, Barbara, there are federal laws in place that are supposed to cover situations like this. Do they factor into this at all?

SPRUNT: Yeah. Well, I spoke with lawyers on both sides of this, along with voters and advocates. And a lot of the confusion seems to be around just this. Right? So there's this county ruling that has a strict interpretation of state law saying you can't have your husband or your wife or your home health aide put your ballot in the mailbox for you. But there is simultaneously a federal protection like the Voting Rights Act, for example. And that has a provision in it that grants voters with disabilities the right to have someone assist them in returning their ballot, as long as that person isn't their union rep or their employer. So this creates a bit of tension - right? - between state and federal. And it's not just for the voters, but it's for the clerks who have to navigate this during elections.

DETROW: And, Miles, I feel like some other important context is, in a lot of Republican states, part of the conversation about these new voting laws is an increased emphasis on enforcement. Right? Like, isn't Florida staffing up voter fraud agencies?

PARKS: I mean, I think that idea, folks with disabilities just find so unbelievably insulting. It reminds me a lot of the debate in a lot of states happening right now also on going back to hand-marked paper ballots, because there is this general distrust in a lot of Republican circles of machines, even machines that produce a paper record. There are pushes across the country to go back to hand-marked paper ballots. And, you know, there are people who cannot read a paper ballot. There are people who cannot grip a pen. And so to make those folks have to use a machine when everyone else is voting in a different method, disability rights advocates argue that in and of itself - making us vote differently is disenfranchisement in and of itself. So there are all sorts of these sorts of issues where this push towards security is coming up, you know, in direct conflict with the rights of folks with disabilities.

DETROW: So when is the court ruling expected? What happens next?

SPRUNT: So the court is expected to decide sometime in June, and that's about two months ahead of the statewide primary elections. So, you know, clerks will have not that long to actually figure out what is the new guidance, how to implement it. And then, of course, advocates will have to get the word out to voters one way or the other.

DETROW: All right. Well, Barbara, thanks for going to Wisconsin for the story.

SPRUNT: Thanks. Thanks for having me on this.

DETROW: That is it for today. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

SPRUNT: I'm Barbara Sprunt. I cover politics.

PARKS: And I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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