Kaul argues against allowing disabled Wisconsin voters to cast ballots electronically from home

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul pushed back against a lawsuit seeking to allow disabled people in the state to cast absentee ballots electronically from home, arguing officials don't have time before upcoming elections to train local clerks on changes to voting procedures.

Associated Press

June 24, 2024

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A touchscreen printed ballot voting machines stands in a room with wood-paneled walls.

A touchscreen printed ballot voting machine stands ready at a polling place on March 27, 2023, at Warner Park Community Recreation Center in Madison. Disabled voters in Wisconsin argue the current absentee process prevents them from having a secret ballot, but the office of Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul argued a rule change would cause too much confusion ahead of the November 2024 elections. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

AP News

By Todd Richmond, AP

Wisconsin’s Democratic attorney general pushed back against a request to let people with disabilities vote electronically from home this fall.

Attorney General Josh Kaul’s attorneys told Dane County Circuit Judge Everett Mitchell during a hearing on June 24 that the move would create confusion and security risks. They also argued state election officials don’t have time to teach hundreds of local clerks how to implement the change before the November presidential election.

“This court cannot change the rules of the election now … regardless of how hard or easy it is to make those changes,” Assistant Attorney General Karla Keckhaver told the judge.

The hearing was part of a lawsuit Disability Rights Wisconsin, the League of Women Voters and four disabled people filed in April. They contend many people with disabilities can’t cast paper ballots without assistance, violating their right to cast a secret ballot.

The plaintiffs want Mitchell to allow disabled people to request and cast absentee ballots electronically using devices that help them read and write independently. They also want the judge to let them send ballots back to clerks electronically rather than through the mail.

They point out that military and overseas voters are permitted to request absentee ballots electronically in Wisconsin elections and mail them back. Not allowing disabled people the same accommodation places a “severe burden” on them, Erin Deeley, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys, argued during the hearing.

Any eligible voter can vote by paper absentee ballot in Wisconsin. Democrats have pushed to make the process easier the past several years, while Republicans have tried to limit it. Anyone in Wisconsin was allowed to request an absentee ballot electronically from home and mail it back to clerks until 2011, when then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, signed a bill that allowed only military and overseas voters to use that method.

The plaintiffs initially requested a temporary injunction that would have implemented electronic absentee voting and ballot return for disabled voters during the state’s Aug. 13 primary and November presidential election. They revised the request just before the hearing, asking that the accommodation apply only during the November election for voters who can’t independently read or mark a paper ballot. The plaintiffs made the move after Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe testified in mid-June that the agency would need three months to implement the change.

Keckhaver told Mitchell that an injunction would create confusion for the state’s roughly 1,800 clerks, who are currently busy preparing for the August primary. The elections commission wouldn’t have enough time to train them before November, leaving them unsure how to verify whether a voter is disabled.

She added that many local clerks don’t use government email systems, leaving their emails vulnerable to hacking and disabled voters confused about whether the ballots they receive are official.

As for the secret ballot argument, Keckhaver pointed out that disabled people’s assistants could be subject to criminal penalties if they divulge a person’s vote. Disabled people can also vote using special machines at the polls, Keckhaver added.

“The plaintiffs aren’t being forced to forfeit their right to vote,” she said. “They can vote the way they always have.”

Deeley countered that Keckhaver has provided no evidence of security vulnerabilities in the military and overseas voter systems. Jared Grubow, another attorney for the plaintiffs, added that disabled voters can easily verify their local clerks’ emails.

Mitchell said he would decide within the next few days whether to issue the injunction.

Questions over who can cast absentee ballots and how have become a political flashpoint in Wisconsin, where four of the past six presidential elections have been decided by less than a percentage point.

People with disabilities make up about a quarter of the U.S. adult population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A little more than a million Wisconsin adults, or one in four, are disabled, defined by the CDC as having difficulty with mobility, cognition, independent living, hearing, seeing, dressing or bathing.

Disabled people have engaged in several legal battles in recent years over access to the polls, as many Republican-led states have restricted how and when people can vote. Among the issues they have fought are limits on the types of assistance a voter can receive and whether someone else can return a voter’s mailed ballot.

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