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Paralyzed from the neck down, downtown Milwaukee resident Martha Chambers has difficulty voting.
She can use a mouth stick to mark her ballot and sign her name on an absentee ballot, but she has no way of folding the ballot, slipping it back in the envelope or returning it to the mailbox.
Driven by its conservative majority, the Wisconsin Supreme Court in July outlawed assistance in the absentee voting process. After that decision, Chambers worried that her caregiver — who also gets her out of bed in the morning, brushes her teeth and puts her clothes on for her — could become a criminal for ensuring she can participate in the democratic process. Chambers said she was effectively disenfranchised.
The ruling in Wisconsin was one of two big legal victories in federal court for voters with disabilities this summer. In June, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman struck down parts of a Texas law that forbid certain assistance for voters with disabilities and voters with limited English proficiency.
The cases are part of the larger, ongoing battle over voting access. More than 20 Republican-led states enacted a wave of barriers to the ballot process in the past two years, making voting — especially by mail — more difficult in the name of preventing voter fraud, which is rare in the United States and did not affect the results of the 2020 presidential election. Voting rights advocates have challenged many of the laws. Protecting voting rights for people with disabilities is one of the few areas in which they’ve had success — and even found some consensus.
After many difficult months of voters with disabilities trying to navigate restrictive new voting laws, these legal victories are welcomed, said Rebecca Cokley, program officer for U.S. disability rights at the Ford Foundation, a New York-based philanthropy that provides grants to organizations that lead voting efforts for people with disabilities.