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Disability advocates applaud bill to remove barriers for voters, continue to seek accountability

MADISON (WKOW) — Disability rights advocates are applauding a new law to removing barriers for voters with disabilities but said work to expand accessibility is far from over.

On Friday, Governor Tony Evers signed into law a bill that will no longer require people with disabilities to say their name and address in order to vote. Instead, someone else can say it for them after disability advocates said the requirement prevented some people from voting. 

“There was a young man from Madison who was deaf and he was very embarrassed and felt humiliated by the experience he had and he was going to leave without voting,” said Barbara Beckert, with Disability Rights Wisconsin.

Beckert tells 27 News during the 2018 general election, more than six people contacted their office because people with a disability couldn’t vote or were embarrassed by poll workers. Beckert said the number is likely higher because some don’t report it.

“The truth is, a lot of people don’t know this assistance is available and people may feel discouraged or embarrassed by the experience they have and they just accept, I can’t speak so I can’t vote and would not further pursue it and that’s unacceptable,” she said.

Disability Rights Wisconsin and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin are now advocating for additional training for poll workers and yearly audits to hold polling locations accountable.

The League of Women Voters tracked accessibility at polling locations during 2018’s general election. They found out of 388 polling sites, 10% did not have accessible voting equipment set up. These are special devices any voter can use but were created as a resource for those with disabilities to vote.

“When people go vote and have a bad experience that makes them less excited about voting and less likely to turn out into future elections,” said Eileen Newcomer, Voter Education Coordinator for the League of Women Voters.

The Wisconsin Election Commission conducts audits to track accessibility problems at polling places. They began conducting these across the state in 2016 but a spokesman with WEC said due to lack of resources in the 2017 state budget there was no audit report. 

These provide summaries of problems important to voters with disabilities such as parking, walkways, ramps, doors and accessible voting equipment.

Beckert these reports are crucial to identify problematic locations and remove barriers for future elections. 

The commission will be releasing it’s 2019 report within the next few days. Election officials tell 27 News the report shows on average, WEC auditors found fewer problems in 2018 and 2019 than they did in 2016. 

“This trend is promising, however, we need to continue working closely with policymakers, local election officials, and community organizations to assure Wisconsin’s voters that all polling places will be accessible,” said Reid Magney, WEC Public Information Officer.

Emilee Fannon

Capital Bureau Chief

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