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How new voting restrictions threaten ballot access for disabled voters

<i>Scott Olson/Getty Images/FILE</i><br/>How new voting restrictions threaten ballot access for disabled voters.
Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images/FILE
How new voting restrictions threaten ballot access for disabled voters.

By Fredreka Schouten and Kelly Mena, CNN

A version of this story appeared in the CITIZEN BY CNN newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.

Christine Corcoran, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1989, cannot walk or drive. She has relied on her husband to mail or turn in absentee ballots on her behalf.

But this year, she was forced to sit out April’s local elections in her Milwaukee suburb after the state Supreme Court temporarily barred voters from giving their completed ballots to someone else to deliver.

“I’m disappointed,” Corcoran, 67, told Fredreka recently. “I do not want my right taken away from me.”

Disability rights advocates around the country say voters like Corcoran are confronting additional and unnecessary barriers to voting in this year’s midterm elections as conservative lawmakers and litigants pursue new voting restrictions in the name of preventing voter fraud.

Voting experts say fraud is exceedingly rare, but “election integrity” has become the rallying cry among some Republican lawmakers, spurred on by false claims from former President Donald Trump that the 2020 election was illegitimate.

In Georgia, for instance, lawmakers have sharply reduced the availability of ballot drop boxes in heavily populated areas. Florida legislators, meanwhile, have made it a felony to pick up and submit more than two vote-by-mail ballots.

And, in Wisconsin, conservative interests have gone to court to argue that voting practices employed in the 2020 election — such as allowing another person to hand in a voter’s absentee ballot or submitting ballots via drop box — violate state law.

The efforts target what critics call “ballot harvesting,” which they say invites fraud by allowing multiple ballots to be collected and dropped off by unauthorized people. Disability rights advocates argue, however, that restricting voting options threatens to marginalize a swath of Americans ahead of crucial midterm elections, in which control of Congress and governorships hangs in the balance.

“A coordinated effort is happening in multiple states to make voting harder for everyone, but, in particular, it’s making the process inaccessible for people with disabilities,” said Shira Wakschlag, senior director of legal advocacy and general counsel at The Arc.

The Arc advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and has joined coalitions of civil and voting rights groups in Texas and Georgia in attempting to strike down parts of new voting laws in those states.

About one in four American adults live with some type of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And researchers at the Program for Disability Research at Rutgers University estimate that 38 million disabled Americans were eligible to vote in 2020.

A record 61.8% of disabled voters cast ballots in the general election that year, according to the Rutgers researchers — up from 55.9% four years earlier as state and local election officials opened up new voting avenues during the pandemic.

Texas trouble again?

“It’s not like you are ignoring one or two individuals,” Molly Broadway, who works on voting rights at Disability Rights Texas, said of the restrictions’ impact on disabled Americans.

Ahead of the March 1 primary in Texas, the group’s voter hotline was abuzz with calls from Texans struggling to navigate new ID requirements passed last year by Republicans in the state legislature, Broadway said.

As we’ve written about before, disabled and elderly voters are among the narrow categories of Texans allowed to vote by mail. And state law now requires voters who want to cast absentee ballots to provide voter identification numbers twice: First, when they request an absentee ballot and, then again, on the inside flap of the envelope they use to return their completed ballots.

One visually impaired voter in the Austin area told the Disability Rights Texas team that she couldn’t even read that portion of the ballot envelope, Broadway said.

State elections officials are working on a redesign of the envelope to make the ID field more prominent, according to a spokesman for the Texas secretary of state’s office.

But the original ballot envelopes will remain in use for May elections, including a May 24 primary runoff that will decide the party’s nominees for state attorney general and a key US House seat.

Broadway is encouraging Texans who want to vote absentee to write down their contact information on ballot applications — including telephone numbers — so local clerks can contact them to flag any problems that arise with their ballots. The secretary of state’s ballot tracking tool also allows voters to check on the progress of the ballots they’ve mailed in.

May 13 is the deadline to turn in absentee ballot applications for the May 24 runoffs.

Wisconsin limbo

In Wisconsin, meanwhile, the state Supreme Court has decided to allow a lower court ban on ballot drop boxes and collecting others’ ballots to remain in place while the justices weigh a legal challenge.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (or WILL), a conservative law firm, brought the lawsuit, saying the practices violate state law that it interprets as requiring voters to return ballots themselves.

During the height of the pandemic in 2020, the Wisconsin Election Commission — the six-member panel that helps oversee voting in the state — issued guidance to local election clerks that they could allow the use of drop boxes and permit individuals other than the voters to turn in absentee ballots.

The commission’s guidance easing voting procedures has faced intense criticism from some Wisconsin Republicans after President Joe Biden narrowly flipped the state by fewer than 21,000 votes in 2020.

“When you don’t scrupulously follow the rules … that have been enacted into the law, you contribute to suspicions” that elections have been marred by foul play, said Rick Esenberg, WILL’s president and general counsel.

The high court is expected to make a final decision in the case by the end of June, ahead of the August 9 primary in the state.

Wisconsin, a perennial political battleground, hosts two high-stakes contests this fall. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is seeking a second term, and Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican, is up for reelection in a race that could help determine which party controls the US Senate.

Ohio and Indiana voters head to the polls

Voters head to the polls today for primary elections in Ohio and Indiana. The big race to watch: the Ohio GOP Senate primary, which will test Trump’s influence among Republican voters.

The former President backs venture capitalist and “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance, who faces a crowded field that includes former state treasurer Josh Mandel, businessman Mike Gibbons and former state party chair Jane Timken. They are vying for retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman’s seat.

Also up in Ohio: A primary that pits incumbent GOP Gov. Mike DeWine against conservative challengers, including former congressman Jim Renacci.

Polls in Ohio close at 7:30 p.m. ET. In Indiana, the first polls close at 6 p.m. ET and the rest at 7 p.m. ET.

You need to read

  • This CNN opinion piece from conservative retired federal judge J. Michael Luttig, who warns that GOP efforts to overturn the 2020 election were a “dry run” for 2024. Luttig, as CNN and other outlets have reported, helped then-Vice President Mike Pence defy Trump’s push to block certification of Joe Biden’s win on January 6, 2021.
  • This look at the 10 US Senate seats most likely to flip, written by our CNN colleague Simone Pathe. A string of competitive primaries this month will establish the general-election field.
  • These updates on new election laws signed in Florida and Georgia.

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