WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Wednesday, Aug. 31, a federal court struck down the Wisconsin Elections Commission’s (WEC) ban on ballot return assistance for voters with disabilities. This decision stems from a lawsuit filed earlier this month on behalf of Wisconsin voters with disabilities challenging WEC’s recent guidance that absentee ballots must be physically returned by the voter who filled them out “without the use of a third party or agent.” The plaintiffs allege this limit on voter assistance violates three federal laws: the Voting Rights Act (VRA) by denying the right of assistance in returning an absentee ballot, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act because recipients of federal financial assistance are discriminating on the basis of disability and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by discriminating on the basis of disability. Following a hearing on the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction that was held last week, the court concluded today that the VRA requires that voters with disabilities are entitled to assistance when returning absentee ballots. In a win for voters with disabilities who need assistance returning their ballots, the decision grants the plaintiffs relief under the VRA (the judge didn’t touch the plaintiffs’ additional claims under the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act and the First and 14th Amendment).
The court states that the evidence provided by the plaintiffs shows that the ballot assistance guidance is “interpreted as prohibiting voters—including disabled voters—from relying on a third party to return their absentee ballot.” In the decision, the court held that “voters shouldn’t have to choose between exercising their federal rights and complying with state law.” Finding that WEC’s ban on assistance clearly conflicts with the VRA, the judge concluded that “disabled voters who need assistance in returning an absentee ballot are entitled to ask a person of their choosing for that assistance” and state-level rules cannot conflict with this right. Today’s decision means that voters with disabilities who need assistance returning their absentee ballots will be able to obtain assistance (without fear of violating state law) during the midterm elections this November.