'It's OK to vote' Voters with disabilities help clarify absentee ballot confusion ahead of August primary

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MILWAUKEE Wis. (CBS 58) -- Martha Chambers is one of thousands of voters with disabilities who rely on a loved one or caregiver to return their absentee ballot for them.

Twenty-seven years ago, Chambers was injured in a horseback riding accident that left her paralyzed from the neck down. After a string of court rulings this year, voters with disabilities have faced barriers to voting, and for some that meant their vote didn't count.

"I need things that are easier in my life, not more difficult," said Chambers. "Now I have to go through changes to make sure my ballot is valid and it counts."

During the April election, Chambers had someone else deliver her absentee ballot because she was unable to use her hands. It was a risk she made even though it was illegal. In January, a Waukesha County judge ruled ballot drop boxes are not allowed and voters must return their absentee ballot themselves.

"It made it impossible for my vote to count," said Chambers.

Now weeks ahead of the August primary election, confusion among absentee voters still exists after the State Supreme Court this month ruled ballot drop boxes are illegal and voters can only return their absentee ballot by mail or in-person at their local clerk's office.

Justices decided not to rule whether someone can place an absentee ballot in the mail on another voter's behalf. It means for now someone can collect multiple ballots and place them in mail, not via drop box.

An advocacy group that works to protect the rights of people with disabilities said their office has been inundated with questions after confusion swirled in wake of the court ruling.

This week, Disability Rights Wisconsin issued a memo to municipal and county clerks notifying them about federal laws that ensure voting protections for people with disabilities.

"Voters with a disability who need assistance mailing their ballot, should feel comfortable doing so," the memo states.

Chambers said she was content with the court decision to uphold the federal Voting Rights Act, which protects people with disabilities to have assistance mailing their ballot, and allows a person of their choice to deliver it to their local clerk or polling place.

"That's why I want to be sure people know they can vote regardless of the confusion," said Chambers. "I want people to know it's OK to vote."

She's now working to educate voters with disabilities to mail their ballot as soon as possible. Her advice comes after a Republican-controlled Legislative committee Wednesday eliminated a rule that allowed local clerks to fill in or correct absentee ballot envelopes.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission earlier this year created the rule allowing clerks to fill in a missing witness address on absentee ballot certificates without contacting them.

The move comes less than three weeks before the August 9 primary election. Opponents of suspending the rule say it will impact election officials who will have to track down the witness who didn't fill out the ballot correctly before Election day.

Republicans defended their decision to eliminate the WEC rule, arguing state law doesn't prohibit it.

Chambers said her biggest concern going forward is what Republican lawmakers might do next when it comes to changing election laws.

"I'm fearful they will try to figure something else out and that will be another stumbling block for voting," she said.

Chambers' message to lawmakers: "Leave people with disabilities alone. Make it possible for us to vote just like anyone else."

This year Republicans passed a sweeping package of election bills which were vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers. Some proposals would have imposed more restrictions on indefinitely confined voters, changed voting practices in nursing homes and given the Legislature the ability to cut funding and staff if they violated election laws.

Most of the bills are bound to be reintroduced next year and could have a better chance of becoming law if Wisconsin elects a Republican governor this fall.

Republican candidates running for governor include Tim Michels, Rebecca Kleefisch and State Rep. Tim Ramthun, all who have vowed to enact changes to overhaul elections.

The winner of the GOP primary will advance to face Evers in November. The Democratic governor has made defending election laws a centerpiece of his re-election campaign.

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