Judge poised to allow help for disabled Wisconsin voters
A federal judge in Wisconsin signaled Wednesday that he will allow voters with disabilities to get help returning their ballots this fall, despite a state Supreme Court ruling that cast doubt on such assistance and state law suggesting it is not allowed.
U.S. District Judge James D. Peterson said he expects to issue an order by Sept. 2 that will address differences in state and federal law that make it unclear whether voters who are unable to return or mail their own ballot can select someone else to do so for them.
Peterson said he wanted the order to be in place ahead of the November election. He said under current law, every option for voters who cannot return their own ballot “would result in some sort of injury."
The state Supreme Court in July issued a ruling that outlawed absentee ballot drop boxes and said that voters must return their own absentee ballot in person to a clerk's office or other designated site. The decision did not explicitly address voter assistance for returning ballots by mail.
Following that decision, Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe said that “right now, the voter is the one required to mail the ballot,” referencing a state law that says the same.
Four people with disabilities sued Wolfe and the commission in response, arguing that not being able to receive voting assistance violates their constitutional rights, as well as the Voting Rights Act and Americans with Disabilities Act. Federal law generally takes precedence over state laws under the U.S. Constitution's supremacy clause.
Wednesday’s hearing was held to consider an order proposed by the plaintiffs that would allow voters with disabilities to receive assistance during the November election while the lawsuit plays out. The deadline for clerks to send out absentee ballots is Sept. 22.
Peterson said he was satisfied that the Voting Rights Act and federal law are clear in allowing voters with disabilities to receive assistance but declined to consider in his order the constitutional arguments made by the plaintiffs.
Commission attorneys offered little resistance to the proposed order, but both parties asked for time to discuss with their clients whether they would object to it being permanent.
“Unless something unforeseen happens, we expect the court to issue the relief we’re looking for,” said Scott Thompson, attorney for the plaintiffs.
Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Venhuizen on Twitter.