Earlier this week, a Dane County judge issued a permanent injunction against the state’s recently passed Voter ID law, arguing the Legislature did not have the authority to pass a law that could prevent certain groups of people, notably low-income and minority voters, from casting ballots. “(Legislative) power … ends at the precise point when it transgresses the fundamental voting rights of Wisconsin citizens,” wrote Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess. And yet, as Niess acknowledges throughout his decision, with or without Voter ID, Wisconsin law routinely prevents thousands of citizens from voting. Some are felons who are still under state supervision. The state constitution also enshrines the disenfranchisement of the developmentally disabled.
That language states the Legislature may pass laws “excluding from the right of suffrage to persons … adjudged by a court to be incompetent or partially incompetent, unless the judgment specifies that the person is capable of understanding the objective of the elective process or the judgment is set aside.” In the past, any person who was placed under legal guardianship because of a mental disability had his or her right to vote taken away, unless the judge chose to make an exception. However, a change in the law several years ago, supported by advocates for the developmentally disabled, now allows those with mental disabilities to retain their voting rights unless a judge takes the specific step to take them away.
Alicia Boehne, voting coordinator for Disability Rights Wisconsin, says the result is that fewer people are unfairly stripped of their rights. Still, she says many victims of the former law remain. “Folks who went under guardianship awhile ago are most likely the ones whose right has been taken away,” she explained. “(Now) they have to go back to probate court and ask the judge to reinstate that right.” Unfortunately, she says, many of these people are not aware that they can petition for their voting rights to be restored. This is one of the many reasons, she says, that the disabled in Wisconsin typically vote at a rate 10 to 15 percent lower than the general public.