A federal judge on August 31 blocked a ruling that would have prevented Wisconsin voters with disabilities from getting assistance when casting a ballot. The ruling will allow voters with disabilities to have another person return their absentee ballots for them.

In July, the conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, in a decision that also banned the use of absentee ballot drop boxes, ruled that voters must mail their ballots themselves. Following the state court’s decision, voters with disabilities worried that they’d be forced to choose between breaking the law or disenfranchisement.

The decision from U.S. District Judge James Peterson states that the Voting Rights Act protects the right of voters with disabilities to get whatever assistance is required to cast their ballots.

“Voters shouldn’t have to choose between exercising their federal rights and complying with state law,” Peterson wrote. “But that is the position that plaintiffs find themselves in, and that is in part because defendants have refused to provide needed clarification. If defendants cannot or will not give plaintiffs assurances that their right to vote will be protected, this court must do so. The Voting Rights Act is clear: disabled voters who need assistance in returning an absentee ballot are entitled to ask a person of their choosing for that assistance.”

Law Forward, a voting-rights focused non-profit law firm, filed the lawsuit on behalf of four voters with disabilities who do not have full use of their arms and legs against the Wisconsin Elections Commission and its administrator, Meagan Wolfe.

After Peterson’s decision, the advocacy group Disability Rights Wisconsin (DRW) celebrated the protection of voting rights but said that illegal barriers to voting must be opposed.

“This order confirms what DRW always knew: that voters with disabilities may have assistance from a person of their choice with voting, including with ballot return assistance, and that these rights are protected by federal law,” the organization said in a statement. “We commend the efforts by the four disabled Wisconsin voters in this lawsuit and by Law Forward who represented them. DRW has heard from voters who are angry, confused, and disenfranchised because Wisconsin courts and election officials have not upheld the protections in federal law for voters with disabilities. Those voters should now feel confident to assert their voting rights, which are protected by federal law. Wisconsin must end these illegal barriers and ensure that the rights of voters with disabilities are uniformly protected and enforced across our state.”

The initial lawsuit that led to the state Supreme Court prohibiting absentee ballot drop boxes and temporarily barred voters with disabilities from getting ballot return assistance was brought by two Waukesha County voters and the right-wing law firm, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

The lawsuit was brought after Republican voters turned against these voting methods following the 2020 election — alleging that drop boxes are vulnerable to fraud and that ballot return assistance is a nefarious practice they refer to as “ballot harvesting” or “ballot trafficking.”

Following Peterson’s decision, the three Democrats on the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections said that the ruling was only needed because of Republican attacks on voting access.

“Wisconsin voters had their voting rights confirmed by a federal judge instead of by the laws of our state,” the statement from Reps. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire), Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) and Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) said. “The case decided today was a direct result of Republican efforts to undermine voting rights in Wisconsin and restrict the ability of voters to return their ballots.

They noted that Republicans were so intent on limiting voters’ ability to cast their absentee ballot that some voters with disabilities would have had no way of returning their ballot and exercising their right to participate in our democracy.

“For years, Republicans have attempted to limit voting in our state in order to dictate the results of elections,” they continued. “The fact that they have failed to do so in this case does not change the immeasurable damage that they have done to voting rights in our state. Republicans in the Legislature and on the State Supreme Court have consistently failed to protect voting rights – and actively chosen to undermine voting rights – at nearly every opportunity. This ruling is a victory for voters, but it should not require a federal judge to defend voting rights in Wisconsin.”

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