MADISON, Wis. - Wisconsin voters with disabilities can get help returning their ballots, a federal judge said Wednesday, citing a federal law that trumps a recent state Supreme Court ruling and state laws that suggest otherwise.
U.S. District Judge James D. Peterson issued his order ahead of the November election saying that voters who have difficulty returning their own ballot can choose someone to do so for them.
The order comes after the state Supreme Court in July issued a ruling that said that voters must return their own absentee ballot in person to a clerk’s office or other designated site. The decision did not explicitly address voter assistance for returning ballots by mail, but Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe subsequently pointed to a state law that says a voter must mail their own ballot.
Peterson cited the federal Voting Rights Act. Federal law generally takes precedence over state laws under the U.S. Constitution’s supremacy clause.
"Voters shouldn’t have to choose between exercising their federal rights and complying with state law," Peterson wrote in the final ruling in a lawsuit filed by four people in Wisconsin with disabilities.
Peterson’s order gives the elections commission until Sept. 9 to notify all of the state’s more than 1,800 municipal clerks of the rights disabled voters have to receive assistance under the Voting Rights Act.
"This is a victory for voting rights in Wisconsin, and I think it sends a clear message across the country that federal law protects voters with disabilities," said Scott Thompson, attorney for the plaintiffs.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice, which represented Wolfe and the elections commission in the lawsuit, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Democratic State Rep. Mark Spreitzer reacted to the decision on Twitter by calling out the state's GOP lawmakers, saying in part, "Sadly, Republicans have chipped away at our voting rights to the point that it takes a federal judge to confirm the basic right to cast a ballot."
Peterson signaled his desire in a hearing last week to quickly issue an order in support of the plaintiffs that would provide clarity. Clerks must send out absentee ballots for the November election by Sept. 22.