Voters with Disabilities Fight for Use of Electronic Absentee Voting in Wisconsin and California

Denise Jess, a blind voter, trusts her wife to fill out her ballot for her. But not everyone has a person they trust to help them, she said.

Jess is the director of the Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired.  She knows a blind voter who was worried about a family member with different political views not respecting her wishes while filling out the ballot. So, even though her health was vulnerable, she left her home to go to the polls and vote using the accessible voting equipment, Jess shared

“If that ballot could have been delivered to her in a format that she could use with her access technology, she could have voted from home, not risked her health and not dealt with the stress of wondering if her ballot was going to be marked correctly,” Jess said.

Cases in Wisconsin and California regarding voting rights for people with disabilities, especially blind voters, both have hearings coming up on June 24. As the 2024 election approaches, disability rights and pro-voting groups are pushing for people to have access to electronic absentee voting.

Disability Rights Wisconsin v. Wisconsin Elections Commission 

Under Wisconsin’s current system, voters can’t receive, mark or return absentee ballots electronically unless they are in the military or overseas. This has the largest impact on voters with print disabilities, which include blindness, visual impairment, intellectual disabilities and other impairments that prevent a voter from reading, marking or handling a paper ballot on their own.

On April 16, Disability Rights Wisconsin, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and four individual voters sued the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) over the state’s absentee voting system.

The plaintiffs said that voters should be allowed to use at-home electronic accessibility devices to read and mark their ballots privately. Instead, voters with disabilities often have to select an assistant to fill out and submit their ballots for them, which the plaintiffs argue violates their independence and privacy while voting. 

The pro-voting groups and voters claim that the lack of options for these voters violates the Wisconsin Constitution and the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. 

They also argue that it violates Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — which requires state and local governments to ensure that people with disabilities have a full and equal opportunity to vote — and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 — which protects qualified individuals from discrimination based on their disability.

In their initial complaint, the plaintiffs asked the state court to mandate that WEC implement an electronic option for absentee voting for voters with disabilities.

A couple of weeks later, on May 1, the pro-voting groups and voters asked the court to immediately order WEC to do this before the state’s upcoming August primary and the November general election, and the court will hold a hearing on this on June 24.

Debra Cronmiller, executive director of the League of Women Voters Wisconsin, argues that this should not be difficult because this online system already exists for military and overseas voters.

“It’s not as though WEC or clerks would have to create or purchase new equipment or new mechanisms for getting ballots into the hands of people who need them,” Cronmiller said. “It is literally about the statutes prohibiting that electronic ballot from being issued to anyone who’s not overseas or military.”

She also clarified that the state’s statute didn’t purposefully exclude voters with disabilities from being able to use the electronic system.

“I think it’s just we didn’t have the technology then that we have today,” Cronmiller said. “There was never a reason to not allow low vision or blind individuals to be sent an electronic ballot. There was just no purpose in doing that until the sophisticated reading machines came onto the market.”

Jess said that as a blind voter, she has access to technology that could read a ballot aloud to her, and then she’d use her keyboard to correctly mark it. 

One of the plaintiffs in the case, Stacy Ellingen, has cerebral palsy and does not have the fine motor skills to hold a pen and accurately mark a ballot. However, she has a computer system in her home that would allow her to fill out an electronic absentee ballot privately and independently, the lawsuit indicated. 

“She uses two monitors, an enlarged adapted keyboard, and an eye gaze system, which allows her to type and control the mouse just through moving her eyes,” the lawsuit noted. “These devices would allow her to vote electronically.”

California Council of the Blind v. Weber 

In California, voters with print disabilities can fill out their ballots electronically, but they can’t submit them online. They have to print them out, put them in government-issued envelopes, sign and seal the envelopes and put them in the mail. This has led these voters to seek assistance to vote by mail or avoid voting by mail entirely.

On March 8, the California Council of the Blind, National Federation of the Blind of California and three voters filed a federal lawsuit against California Secretary of State Shirley Weber (D) challenging the state’s requirement for voters to return mail-in ballots by paper-based methods.

“Forcing voters with print disabilities to seek the assistance of another person deprives them of the right to express their political choices without others’ presence or knowledge (that is, on a secret ballot)—a hallmark of our electoral process,” the plaintiffs argue.

Plaintiff and blind voter Vita Zavoli, of Alameda County, California, was able to receive, read and mark her vote-by-mail ballot using assistive technology, including a computer with a screen reader. However, she was not able to print it out and return it herself. She needed to have a paid assistant finalize the ballot and return it for her.

According to the lawsuit, she became a U.S. citizen several decades ago and she feels privileged to have the right to vote in this country. 

“As a result, she is passionate about voting and is committed to ensuring that she and others have the same access to California’s Vote-by-Mail Program as do voters without print disabilities,” the lawsuit said.

Like in the Wisconsin case, the plaintiffs argued this requirement violates Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. 

The voters and organizations asked the court to block this requirement and order the secretary of state to allow blind voters and others with disabilities to submit their mail-in ballots electronically like certain military and overseas voters can.

On April 4, the groups and voters asked the court to do this immediately because if this case is not resolved by November, then that would severely harm voters with disabilities in the 2024 election. The court scheduled a hearing for June 24.

Ongoing Accessibility Cases Stretch Nationwide as 2024 Election Looms

Here are a few of the many cases across the country where voters and groups are relentlessly fighting for accessible voting measures.

  • In May 2023, Disability Rights Mississippi, the League of Women Voters of Mississippi, a voter and two individuals who provide voter assistance filed a lawsuit challenging Senate Bill 2358, a recently enacted Mississippi law that restricts voters with disabilities from having a person of their choice assist them in submitting their completed mail-in ballots. The case is currently paused until further notice.
  • In October 2023, the National Federation of the Blind of Alabama sued absentee election managers for Tuscaloosa, Mobile and Jefferson counties challenging Alabama’s inaccessible absentee voting system for those who are blind or have print disabilities. The defendants seek to dismiss the case, and both sides are waiting for the court to make a decision.
  • In December 2023, the League of Women Voters of Ohio and an individual voter filed a lawsuit challenging a provision of Ohio’s 2023 voter suppression law  — House Bill 458 — that imposes strict limitations on who can assist voters with disabilities in returning their completed absentee ballots. There are several motions in progress, and the case is ongoing in the district court.

All of these lawsuits could impact whether people with disabilities can fully exercise their vote in November and not have to sacrifice their right to privacy in one of the most contentious elections ever.

“It’s about dignity and privacy. No other voters, except for voters with disabilities, are put in the position of having to disclose their candidates,” Jess said. “It’s a very uncomfortable double standard in order to vote.”