In America, we have a history of coming together to fight for our freedom to vote. The franchise was expanded to formerly enslaved individuals after the Civil War with passage of the Reconstruction Amendments. Half a century later, the 19th Amendment enshrined the vote for women. During the Civil Rights era, the tradition continued with the passage of the Voting Rights Act and its subsequent amendments. In 1971, we amended the Constitution to ensure that individuals between the age of 18-20 were able to vote across the country. Then, in the 1980s, the Americans with Disabilities Act extended strong voting protections to voters with disabilities.
Today, Law Forward and voters from across the state continue that tradition. On Friday, we filed suit in federal court to make clear that federal law protects WI voters with disabilities voting in the 2022 November election.
Voters with disabilities enjoy the right to vote, and to do so free from discrimination. To that end, voters with disabilities who need help to cast their ballots are expressly authorized under federal law to receive such assistance. Yet over the last month, these bedrock, civil-rights protections have come under threat. First, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin prohibited all Wisconsin voters from returning absentee ballots to a clerk’s office through a third party. Next, the Wisconsin Elections Commission’s administrator declared a similar prohibition on mailed absentee ballots.
These changes discriminate against, or even disenfranchise, the voters who filed this case. Because of their disabilities, these Wisconsinites need someone else’s assistance to vote absentee. Yet the State’s recent actions jeopardize their only method of doing so. Making it harder or impossible to vote is discrimination. Similarly alarming, for those Plaintiffs who are physically incapable of voting in person, these changes directly infringe upon their right to vote altogether.
We have seen a coordinated campaign of misinformation and disinformation aimed at casting absentee ballots in particular in Wisconsin. This effort attempts to make election administration rules confusing or contradictory and has the potential to chill public’s will to vote. This effort is clearest in several lawsuits brought by the rightwing advocacy group, Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, in the last year. The latest, which challenged the validity of absentee ballot drop boxes and absentee ballot return assistance, ended in a disappointing decision earlier this month from the WI Supreme Court where it defied its own precedent, creating new barriers to the ballot box. The decision was a grave disappointment that unnecessarily burdens Wisconsinites casting their ballots.
While the Court failed to rule on ballot return assistance, which was also questioned by the right-wing activists who brought this case—despite knowing that thousands of voters returned absentee ballots on behalf of their friends and family—in the days since the ruling we have seen confusion and chaos around how voters can return their ballots. Ballot return assistance has been explicitly legal under Wisconsin law for nearly seventy years. In addition, there are express federal protections specifically for voters with disabilities. Our case asks the federal court to reinforce and to make crystal clear that voters with disabilities in WI can continue to return their ballots by having an agent of their choosing return a signed, sealed absentee ballot.
Federal courts exist to vindicate federal rights. Voters in Wisconsin should have confidence in absentee ballot return, and a decision from the court can help stop the misinformation campaigns once and for all. This sacred freedom is being undermined in our state and we are committed to using all of the legal tools available to prevent it.