New restrictions causing roadblocks for voters with disabilities

"Is my vote really something that's valued?" one disabled voter asked.

March 5, 2022, 9:10 PM

Don Natzke, who lost his sight at age 12, says still being able to vote has played a pivotal role in his life.

"It's true of all citizens, but certainly for people with disabilities, the people who are making the policies are very important to us," he told ABC News. "For example, what my community chooses to do to have accessible transportation available affects how I'm able to move around my community."

Natzke, who is now retired, grew up in Wisconsin and says the only way he could vote was to appear at a polling place and have someone read, mark and cast the ballot for him.

"But as technology has moved along, we've ended up having the possibility of accessible voting machines and different ways to vote. This is particularly important," he told ABC News.

Leading up to the 2020 election, in order to expand voting during the pandemic, the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission encouraged the use of absentee ballot drop boxes and allowed a friend or family member to drop off a ballot for another voter. Election officials placed about 570 absentee ballot drop boxes across 66 of the state's 72 counties.

Natzke says that, since he was high-risk for COVID, he didn't feel comfortable going to the polls in-person. He had reservations about mail-in-voting because of Postal Service delivery delays. He said having the drop boxes as an option was essential because he was able to have his son, one of his primary caretakers, drop off his ballot.

But now, in the wake of former President Donald Trump's false claims of voter fraud, states that enacted policies making it easier to vote, such as drop boxes and drive-thru voting, expanded polling hours, and increased absentee voting options, have started to roll back those options.

Disabled voters say they and their caretakers are suffering the consequences.

In Wisconsin, changed election policies will make it harder for disabled voters to cast their ballots, Natzke said. While people with disabilities can still benefit from accommodations such as accessible voting machines, they still face hurdles getting to polling sites and sometimes having to use outdated equipment.

PHOTO: Wilbur Harbin prepares to place his ballot in a vote by mail ballot drop box during the Congressional district 20 elections, Jan. 11, 2022, in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
Wilbur Harbin prepares to place his ballot in a vote by mail ballot drop box during the Congressional district 20 elections, Jan. 11, 2022, in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Last month, the Wisconsin Supreme Court denied a request from the elections commission to keep the drop boxes through the state's April election and barred anyone other than the voter from mailing or returning a ballot.

It comes as the court will hear arguments next month on whether it's valid to use drop boxes in future elections.

Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which brought the lawsuit challenging guidelines allowing drop boxes, told ABC News he's not necessarily against drop boxes but says it's up to state lawmakers, not election officials, to change election rules.

Since the 2020 election, Wisconsin's GOP-controlled legislature has passed a slew of election-related bills. However, with many of them adding more requirements to voting or giving more power to partisan actors, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers says he will veto any legislation that makes it harder for people to vote.

Esenberg and other backers of the policy rollbacks in Wisconsin say their efforts are aimed at cracking down on election fraud, despite no serious fraud having been found in the 2020 election. An Associated Press investigation, looking at eight battleground states, found just 473 examples of individual voter fraud and 80% of counties in those states reporting no suspicious activity.

Esenberg also pushed back on claims disabled voters are being disenfranchised, saying people with disabilities can vote by requesting "door-to-door" service through the Postal Service to get their ballot delivered. Advocates say that doesn't always work because some disabled voters are confined to bed.

Those in the disability community say there are still roadblocks for some with mobility issues, and argue the legislature's work is causing harm.

"Well, it's democracy," Esenberg responds. "What you have to do at that point, is go out and win small elections. So, your side will have a majority in the legislature and you'll be able to get what you want."

"The disability community is not against fraud-free elections; we're not against that. But we also don't want our civil rights trampled on in the process," said Stephanie Birmingham, an advocacy coordinator at Options for Independent Living and someone who has used a wheelchair since an early age.

Natzke agrees, saying there is no evidence of widespread fraud. "The cure is far worse than the illness."

PHOTO: A disabled person uses a specially designed booth for voting during the New Hampshire primary at a high school in Nashua, N.H., Jan. 8, 2008.
A disabled person uses a specially designed booth for voting during the New Hampshire primary at a high school in Nashua, N.H., Jan. 8, 2008.
Ramin Talaie/Corbis via Getty Images

Just this year, 27 states have pre-filed or introduced legislation making it more difficult for people to vote. At least three of those states introduced measures specifically aimed at people with disabilities that make it harder to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

In Texas, under new voting law S.B.1 -- which includes new requirements to mail-in voting, more power to partisan poll watchers, and cuts back on early voting hours -- lawmakers added new requirements and potential criminal penalties for assisting voters, including those with disabilities.

Now, aides must fill out extensive paperwork and take an oath that they did not pressure the voter to choose them for assistance.

Voters with disabilities and their aides say they are left to fend for themselves, trying to figure out what the new rules mean.

PHOTO: A demonstrator holds a sign reading "Pass the Freedom to Vote Act" during a protest at the Capitol, Jan. 20, 2022.
A demonstrator holds a sign reading "Pass the Freedom to Vote Act" during a protest at the Capitol, Jan. 20, 2022.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Barbara Beckert, director of the Disability Rights Wisconsin's Milwaukee office, said she has experienced a significant influx of calls from caretakers as well as voters voicing frustration, hurt and confusion about the rollback of drop boxes and absentee ballot return assistance A main reason is that some of the new rules contradict legal disability protections.

Though the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling means voters can't have someone else return his or her ballot, Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act permits a voter with a disability from getting help doing so from a person of their choice.

"It's my understanding that in a situation like that, federal law would preempt the state law. However, you know, this is a difficult situation. It's been very challenging to know how to advise a voter in that situation," she explains.

The difficulties come as turnout among voters with disabilities has surged in recent years. In 2020, all disability types and demographic groups experienced higher turnout, with nearly 62% of all people with disabilities voting, according to recent data from the Program for Disability Research at Rutgers University and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Now, they worry the new measures will reverse those historic gains.

Texas just held the first primary of the midterm season, and advocates say the new rules imposed significant challenges.

"We talked to one lady the other day who had applied multiple times and never got her ballot, so she ended up not voting," Chase Bearden, deputy director of Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, told ABC News.

And in Wisconsin, voters are bracing for April's election, where judicial, educational and municipal officers are on the ballot.

Don Natzke, now a senior citizen, hopes for a better understanding of the hurdles people with disabilities often face.

"We recognize that there are times that we all need to accomplish what everybody else needs to do. But sometimes we need to do that differently," Natze said. "It makes me wonder, you know, is my vote really something that's valued?"