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‘It puts people in a really tenuous spot,’ disability advocates call for lawmakers to delay election

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Voting already poses a challenge for people with disabilities, including those who are visually impaired. One advocate said Sunday such voters are now facing an especially difficult decision: risk your health to vote in-person Tuesday or give up the right in an act of self-preservation.

"My deep concern is that folks will just not vote," said Denise Jess, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council for the Blind & Visually Impaired. "If they haven't voted already and haven't been able to file their absentee ballot, they may opt to simply let go because the physical risks are way too scary."

Jess said voting is already stressful for many people with disabilities, particularly absentee voting since there are multiple layers of dependence involved. Jess said finding a witness to sign the ballot - a requirement upheld by a federal judge - is enough of a challenge; she said needing assistance in filling out the ballot removes privacy all together.

"I needed to entrust my wife to fill out my ballot according to my wishes and that has been a legitimate fear for some folks in the state," Jess said.

For that reason, Jess said many voters with disabilities opt for the polling place because they have accessible voting machines. However, voting in-person during a pandemic requires voters to assume additional risk.

"I have a great deal of disappointment that we have not extended the election date until later May," Jess said.

For weeks, both Governor Tony Evers' administration and the Republican-controlled legislature maintained support for keeping the election on April 7. Last week, the governor's office pivoted, calling for a special session that would transition the election to mail-only with ballots going out to all registered voters. Voters would need to return the ballots by May 26.

Republican lawmakers gaveled into the session Saturday but took no action. Both the state and national GOP offices have appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States to keep the April 7 election date and to overturn a federal judge's decision that currently would give voters until April 13 to return their absentee ballots.

With cities and villages consolidating polling sites for both early voting and election day, Jess said transportation has become another hurdle. Jess said it amounts to about 100,000 visually impaired adults in Wisconsin having to choose between two bad options.

"What do you do decide to do? Risk your safety and your health to be able to vote or to sacrifice your right to vote?" Jess said.

The Wisconsin Disability Vote Coalition is holding three live events via Zoom between Monday and Tuesday to update voters on the latest election rules. People can access those meetings here.

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A. J. Bayatpour

Reporter, WKOW 27

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