Jane Benson just wants to vote in the Wisconsin elections on Tuesday. A few weeks ago, she got reconstructive surgery done to fix an injury caused by a genetic condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. The surgery required doctors to implant a metal plate and screws in her right foot.
“I’m wheelchair-bound with no weight-bearing for six weeks,” she explained to Grid. “Then it’s about a total of three months recovery.”
But a recent decision from a Waukesha County judge has complicated the process for her. A month before her surgery, Circuit Court Judge Michael Bohren ruled that absentee drop boxes are not allowed under state law. And ballots are mailed out with stickers notifying that it is illegal for anyone other than the voter to touch the ballot before it gets into the mailbox. To comply with the law, Benson would have to construct a ramp to get out of her house and to a post box.
Despite these barriers, she still wanted to vote. Civic engagement was important to Benson; she’d been a poll worker for 15 years before the pandemic started. Plus, there was an election coming up: Early April marks an election for local government positions — including school board officials and district court and appellate judges.
In March, Benson took to Facebook to vent her frustrations. “It is illegal for me to give my husband my ballot for him to put it in the mailbox for me,” she wrote. “This is what voter suppression currently looks like in WI.”
The law may seem scary to voters, but “it’s unenforceable”
It all started with a legal challenge from the conservative legal advocacy group Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), when it filed a lawsuit on July 28, 2021, against the Wisconsin Elections Commission challenging the legality of ballot drop boxes in the state. It cited Wisconsin statute stating that “the privilege of voting by absentee ballot must be carefully regulated to prevent the potential for fraud or abuse.”
The suit is but one of many legal challenges to voter access in a nationwide conservative-led battle against what they are calling voter fraud, stemming from former president Donald Trump’s debunked claims of rampant voter fraud in the 2020 election. (There’s no evidence that ballot drop boxes contribute to voter fraud.)
Part of the strategy is to drastically limit the use of absentee ballot drop boxes after they were expanded during the covid-19 pandemic. Of the over 250 bills introduced nationwide since January that aim to restrict voter access, over half of them target mail-in voting.
This isn’t just happening in Wisconsin. As WILL’s lawsuit made its way through the Wisconsin court system, the Idaho House of Representatives was also working to pass a GOP-led bill banning ballot drop boxes in several counties across the state.
Bohren’s ruling led to the removal of 500 drop boxes across 850 municipalities in Wisconsin. The decision was challenged in a lower court but upheld by the Wisconsin Supreme Court with a 4-3 ruling on Feb. 11; a final ruling is slated to come out this spring.
But the law didn’t just do away with drop boxes; it also banned anyone but the voter themselves from handing their ballot in.
In his January decision, Bohren wrote that “an elector must personally mail or deliver his or her absentee ballot.” As a result, absentee ballots that were shipped out for the April election include a highlighted yellow box off to the top right side, which says the same.
“Only the voter can return their ballot by mail or by delivering it to the Clerk’s office,” it reads. “No one else can do this for you.”
This restriction has caused disabled voters to worry about how they should vote and whether that vote will count. Barbara Beckert, the Milwaukee office director of Disability Rights Wisconsin, described the statute as “very extreme and concerning.” She has fielded concerns from disabled Wisconsinites who fear they’ll break the law.
“I’m hearing from a lot of people that they are angry and shocked, and they just feel this does not align with Wisconsin values,” she told Grid.
One individual she spoke with requires assistance to retrieve his own mail on a regular basis. “He lives in northern Wisconsin, so he’s in a rural area,” Beckert said. “His mailbox is half a mile from his home.” He’s disabled and elderly, so he has someone retrieve his mail for him.
But when he requested an accommodation from the post office, the Postal Service denied it.
“It’s unenforceable,” Benson said. She and her husband live in rural Suamico, Wisconsin, which has a population of about 12,000 across 59.4 square miles.
“The only way for me to vote is to have my husband put in a temporary ramp and have him wheel me down in order to put my ballot in the mailbox,” she told Grid. “I cannot simply hand him the ballot and have him put it in the mail. It’s illegal to do that now.”
The requirement created an “undue burden” for Benson’s husband, she said. “Ultimately, he’s the one who has to install the ramp and wheel me past the snow to put my ballot in our mailbox at the end of the long driveway.”
Shirley, another Wisconsinite, returned a ballot for a friend of hers who’s disabled and spoke on the condition of partial anonymity to avoid possible legal repercussions. “She doesn’t get out of her house very much,” she said, “and her mail goes to another person who’s taking care of her finances.”
When the woman received her absentee ballot, she filled it out with Shirley serving as a witness.
“Then the problem is, what does she do with it?” Shirley told Grid. “She doesn’t have a mailman come to her door every day, so she can’t just pin it to her mailbox in hopes that they’ll take it. What do you do?”
Shirley opted to drop the ballot in the mailbox for her, but she’s anxious that she has put her friend’s vote at risk — or broken the law. “I pay my taxes,” she said. “I don’t have parking or speeding tickets, and I try to wear my seat belt. You try to do all the things society tells you to do, then something as simple as this happens.”
“We’re not committing any kind of crime here,” she said. “But it’s just very strange. When I read those rules, I thought, ‘Well, I guess I’m doing an act of civil disobedience.’”
“It doesn’t align with federal law”
The rule may not just be strange, it “doesn’t align with federal law,” Beckert said.
“The Federal Voting Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act protects the rights of people with disabilities to have equitable access to voting,” Beckert told Grid. Section 208 of the VRA guarantees accommodations for disabled voters who can’t read, write or fill out their ballot by their own faculties.
“Any such voter may be given assistance by a person of the voter’s choice, other than the voter’s employer or agent of the employer,” the statute reads.
But although Beckert believes accommodations are protected by federal law, “we can’t tell voters when they contact us, ‘Yep, you can go ahead and get assistance.’”
On March 21, the Madison-based nonpartisan legal firm Law Forward appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court on behalf of Disability Rights Wisconsin and other local voting rights groups, arguing that Bohren’s ruling misinterpreted Wisconsin election law.
The assistance addressed in Section 208 is not limited to filling out a ballot “but also extended to returning that ballot so it may be counted,” the complaint reads. To say otherwise “renders the statute absurd.” The Wisconsin Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on April 13.
“In Wisconsin, you hear about ‘Wisconsin nice,’” Beckert said. “Someone isn’t feeling well, you bring over a casserole. And if someone can’t mail their own ballot, it’s an honor to be able to help them access their right to vote.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.