What to Know About Your Voting Rights as Fall Elections Approach

A light-skinned woman using an accessible voting machine

In just a few months, we will be heading back to the polls to cast our votes in a number of important elections. There are two elections left this year: the August Primary and the General Election in November. Wisconsin residents will have the opportunity to not only help decide who will be President for the next four years but will decide important races for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, the State Legislature, and potentially in your local municipal government. No matter how you decide to vote, we at the Council firmly believe in the importance of making your voices heard at the polls. That’s especially true for people with vision loss and other disabilities, who often face barriers to casting their ballot.

The dates for this year’s upcoming elections are:

Partisan Primary Election

August 13

Voters will determine a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate to run against incumbent Tammy Baldwin. This election will also determine General Election candidates for seats in the State Legislature and U.S. House of Representatives.

General Election

November 5

Voters decide who will be President for a four-year term beginning in January of 2025. The General Election will also determine who will be elected to Congress and the State Legislature. Depending where you live in Wisconsin, there may also be important local elections on the ballot.

It’s important to know what to expect before you fill out your ballot, and with a couple of months before the partisan primary election, there is no better time than now to begin making your plan.

Making a voting plan ahead of time can help ensure that your ballot gets counted on Election Day. Unexpected obstacles, like your absentee ballot arriving late in the mail or your transportation to your polling place falling through, could lead to your vote not being counted.

Before Election Day, make sure you are registered to vote and have a backup plan in case you run into issues with your original plan. We wrote more about creating a voting plan in a recent On Sight article you can find at WCBlind.org/2024/02/Its-Time-To-Make-Your-Voting-Plan-For-Spring-Elections/.

One important part of making sure your vote is counted is being able to utilize accessible voting equipment. Accessible voting machines are essentially just a monitor and a printer that make filling out your ballot easier. Federal and state law mandate that every polling place has an accessible electronic voting machine available for anyone to use.

Unfortunately, we know that while those machines are available, they may not be ready to use. Poll workers may not understand how the machines work, or they may need ink, or they may not be plugged in. In one case in Rusk County last spring, a local municipal government had voted to disallow the use of accessible voting machines—in violation of federal law—over fear they could be used to falsely submit ballots.

Accessible voting machines work by displaying the ballot digitally so that it can be enlarged for better viewing or presented in audio format. A voter can then use the machine to cast their votes privately and securely. The completed ballot is then printed and fed into a tabulator. While accessible voting machines can be used by anybody regardless of whether they have a disability, they are the only way for some people to cast their ballot in a secure and private manner. It’s worth mentioning that accessible voting machines are not connected to the internet, so concerns about them being hacked are almost entirely baseless.

Alternatively, voters with a disability can have an assistant fill out their ballot according to their wishes or at their direction, either absentee or at the polling place. Under state and federal law, an assistant can be anyone of your choosing except your employer or union steward. If you don’t have an assistant on election day, poll workers are required to act as an assistant on your behalf.

While having an assistant help fill out your ballot is useful for people with vision loss, it also means you are not really voting privately as is your right. That’s why the availability of accessible voting machines on Election Day is critical.

If you will need these accommodations on Election Day, we recommend reaching out to your local clerk ahead of time to let them know what you will need. While all accessibility options should be ready for you to use on Election Day, poll workers may not understand the state and federal laws or the equipment to allow you to vote. Contacting your clerk ahead of time and letting them know that you will need an accessible voting machine or an assistant will help them be prepared to enable you to cast your ballot with as few barriers as possible.

If you encounter an issue using accessible voting equipment or an assistant on Election Day, report the problem to the Disability Rights Wisconsin Voter Hotline at 1-800-DIS-VOTE.

The final, and maybe most important, thing to remember is to make sure you are registered to vote. In Wisconsin, you are able to register at your polling place on Election Day. However, we recommend skipping the line and registering before the election. You can register by mail, at your local clerk’s office, or online at MyVote.wi.gov.

While everyone should be able to feel certain their vote will be counted, unfortunately barriers still exist, particularly for voters with vision loss or other disabilities. The Council is deeply interested in two lawsuits currently in state courts that would help expand access to voting for all Wisconsin voters.

The first lawsuit seeks to allow absentee ballot drop boxes once again in Wisconsin. Drop boxes are a safe alternative to mailing your ballot and are usually much more conveniently located than the clerk’s office, often within walking distance of home. Drop boxes are especially important in rural areas of Wisconsin where transportation options are more limited than in urban centers.

While absentee ballot drop boxes have been used in Wisconsin for decades, they become more prominent during the 2020 presidential election. These drop boxes were ruled illegal by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2022. Barring drop boxes creates yet another unnecessary barrier for voters with disabilities.

The current case argues that the decision barring absentee ballot drop boxes makes it harder for people to securely cast their ballot, specifically people with disabilities. The case was argued before the state Supreme Court last month, with a decision expected in the near future.

The second lawsuit the Council is interested in seeks to allow voters with disabilities to receive and return their absentee ballot electronically. The state’s current absentee ballot is not accessible to people with vision loss and print-related disabilities because it is only allowed to be issued on paper. The only exceptions are overseas and military voters, who are allowed to receive and return their ballot electronically. Federal law guarantees that people with disabilities have the right to cast their ballot privately. The lawsuit, filed by Disability Rights Wisconsin and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, claims that the current state of absentee voting does not allow someone with a disability to complete their ballot privately, since the help of an assistant is required.

While some voters may trust their assistant to fill out their ballot accurately and securely, others may not. This lawsuit, currently being heard in the Dane County Circuit Court, seeks an injunction to allow absentee ballots to be sent to voters electronically for the upcoming August and November elections. If the injunction is granted, those ballots would still need to be returned physically, as the technology for receiving electronic absentee ballots on a wider scale is not yet available to local election clerks.

While the Council is not directly involved in either of these cases, we firmly believe that every voter, including those with vision loss or any other type of disability, deserves the right to cast their ballot safely and privately. Removing these barriers would allow all voters to do just that.

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