Americans with disabilities fight for access as states enforce restrictive voting laws

Americans with disabilities say state efforts to tighten voting laws are making it harder for eligible voters like them to cast their ballots. The debate recently played out in Wisconsin after voters there sued, prompting a federal judge to order the state to rewrite its guidance for election officials. Scott Thompson, an attorney for four of those plaintiffs, joined Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Voters with disabilities say more restrictive voting laws or cutting off their access to the ballot box. Now Wisconsin is rewriting its guidance after a federal judge sided with four such voters there.

    I spoke with the attorney for those plaintiffs — he is Scott Thompson — earlier this week.

    Scott Thompson, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    Let me just start by asking you to give us some background. How is it that the state of Wisconsin has laws on the books that would forbid a voter with disabilities from having someone assist him or her in returning a ballot

  • Scott Thompson, Staff Counsel, Law Forward:

    Wisconsin is emblematic of a bigger nationwide story, an effort to use misinformation to drive policy change.

    Early in 2022, a set of Wisconsin political right-wing activists filed a lawsuit to make ballot return assistance and drop boxes illegal, ballot return assistance being the process by which someone uses a friend, someone of their choosing, to return their absentee ballot.

    When that case made it to the state Supreme Court this summer, the Supreme Court held that that was generally illegal and refused to consider how voters with disabilities would be able to vote as a result of that case. So, that's why we filed our lawsuit.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, tell us just in very basic terms, what were your plaintiffs asking for in this suit?

  • Scott Thompson:

    Our plaintiffs are heroes. They suffer from disabilities that keep them from, in some cases, even leaving their house.

    So we were asking the court to first declare that the Voting Rights Act gives these voters the right to ballot return assistance. And then we were asking the court to issue an injunction that would order the state elections commission to guide local elections officials to accept absentee ballots from voters with disabilities if they're returned through a third party.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What exactly are the challenges that your plaintiffs have that were keeping them from being able to return the ballots themselves?

  • Scott Thomspon:

    So Tim Carey lives with Duchenne muscular dystrophy 24/7. He requires a ventilator, and he can't really move without the assistance of someone else.

    So the process of filling out and returning an absentee ballot is an important, but difficult task for him. He needs someone else's help. And that's why we were filing this suit, to make sure that Mr. Carey and the other plaintiffs would be able to get those absentee ballots returned and counted.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This is from another Wisconsin voter. He's 36-year-old William Crowley, who explained why he needed help returning his absentee ballot.

  • William Crowley, Wisconsin Voter:

    I have limited upper body movements and strength. If I were to go to a post office mailbox, I'm unable to open it and throw an envelope in on my own. So I'm limited in that way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Scott Thompson, tell us what the judge ruled in ruling in favor of your plaintiffs.

  • Scott Thompson:

    Well, the judge agreed with us in no uncertain terms. His order does two things.

    It declares these plaintiffs' rights in Wisconsin and makes clear that the Voting Rights Act applies. And, second, he ordered that the elections commission had to issue instructions by this Friday to make sure that local election clerks knew to accept these absentee ballots.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I just want to point out that it was just last week that prosecutors in Wisconsin did charge a man who was a Republican activist. They charged him with voter fraud, including two felonies, alleging he ordered absentee ballots in the names of other people, in an effort to prove that voter fraud is easy to pull off.

    So does something like that undercut the arguments?

  • Scott Thompson:

    I think this shows that it's very infrequent. It also shows that the system we already have works.

    When there is a rare example of voter fraud, like Mr. Wait's attempt, our state can prosecute. And simply because these activists can dream up ways to potentially commit a crime doesn't mean that we should be further restricting the right to vote for anybody, but especially the rights to vote for voters with disabilities.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In terms of broadening this out to the whole country, what states are there out there that you believe do a good job of protecting the rights of voters with disabilities? And what do you think this ruling in Wisconsin could have on potential restrictions that other courts or other legislatures try to impose?

  • Scott Thompson:

    Well, I think that that this ruling sends a clear message across the country that voters with disabilities are not going to stand pat when their rights are being trampled on.

    As far as nationwide examples, I think that some of the states on the West Coast, California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, they have expanded vote by mail in ways that makes the process much more accessible. Other states have truly expanded access to ballot drop boxes.

    And some states are even experimenting with certain online methods to vote with blockchain-based software. I believe West Virginia was testing something like that. And I think this shows that we can be moving forward.

    Ultimately, these actors are going to test the guardrails of democracy. But it's important that we are doing everything we can to push back and make sure that the right to vote is protected.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Scott Thompson, an attorney in Wisconsin, thank you very much for joining us.

  • Scott Thompson:

    Thanks for having me.

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