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Voters with disabilities face new barriers over Texas voting law

Voters with disabilities have joined a massive lawsuit over Senate Bill 1, a sweeping election law that Texas lawmakers have touted as a way to safeguard elections.

(CN) — Amy Litzinger votes in every election, even if sometimes she needs a little extra help.

Born with quadriplegic cerebral palsy, the 34-year-old Austin resident runs into challenges that able-bodied voters might not even consider.

To get to a polling place, Litzinger, who doesn't drive, needs a van capable of transporting her wheelchair. When she arrives, she might need help with tasks like opening doors or getting out her ID.

Once in the voting booth, she needs help inserting her Scantron voting sheet, getting it out and putting it into a ballot box.

“I don’t know why they make those boxes so high,” Litzinger said in an interview, “but I can’t reach them in my chair.”

Now, like other Texas voters with disabilities, Litzinger worries challenges like these could get even worse in the 2022 midterms. That’s after the Texas Legislature last year passed a sweeping new election-security law.

The law, Senate Bill 1, came in the wake of unfounded conspiracies about dead voters and rigged voting machines in the 2020 election. Supporters, including Texas Governor Greg Abbott, argue it's necessary to ensure “trust and confidence in our elections.”

That’s not how critics see it. In a massive lawsuit that started before SB 1 became law, civil and voting rights groups say the law imposes new barriers at the polls, empowers partisan poll watchers and criminalizes protected free-speech activities related to voter organizing and turnout. They've brought claims under the Voting Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the U.S. Constitution.

The law has prompted outrage not only in the disabled community, but among civil rights activists who say it could intimidate ethnic voters and marginalized groups at the polls. The U.S. Department of Justice has also joined the case, arguing the law will create "intentional discrimination in voting.”

Earlier this year, Litzinger submitted a deposition in the case. Because of her conditions, she stated, she needs help with both in-person and mail-in voting.

When it comes to reading the ballot and choosing candidates, "I know what I'm doing — but I need a lot of access help," she said.

According to her deposition, her personal assistants said they were afraid to help her in the 2022 elections because they were worried about being prosecuted under SB 1.

Litzinger typically votes in person, though she qualifies for mail-in voting and did so during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. It felt safer and easier. Cerebral palsy, which affects the lungs, is one condition that increases the risk of severe sickness with Covid-19.

This year, Litzinger is worried that if she votes by mail, her ballot could get rejected due to signature mismatch. While she typically has enough dexterity in her hands, "the signature doesn't ever match," she said. "Depending on how my body is feeling that day, it can look completely different."

She thinks she'll probably vote in person in November, even though she's worried about being exposed to Covid-19 at the polls.

"It seems to be safer than sending in your signature," her mother, Linda, said.

Litzinger agreed: "Having to go in and prove your signature kind of defeats the purpose of a mail-in ballot."

Compared to other Texans with disabilities, Litzinger says she's lucky. Her parents, whom she lives with, help with caretaking. They helped her get the ID to vote. Her family has a ramped van, which she can use to get to the polls.

"I’ve been lucky that I have people that are able to step in," she said, but "I know a lot of my friends have been really struggling." She wants to make sure their right to vote is protected, too.

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"People [with disabilities] who still have family alive are lucky," her mother Linda added. "People who don’t have family alive are very unlucky these days."

Laura Halvorson, a Texan with muscular dystrophy and other disabilities, also provided a deposition in the lawsuit. After SB1 passed, she said she worried about not getting the voting assistance she needs.

"The way SB1 is written," she said in an email, "I can only have assistance if I am unable to see or write, [but] I can do both." However, "it is extremely fatiguing and often painful for me to write by hand" to do a mail-in ballot. When voting in person, "I am unable to move my arms enough to mark the ballot on touchscreen voting machines."

To help her with voting, Halvorson's personal assistants would have to swear an oath that she was unable to write by herself. Technically, that "would not be true," she said. Like Litzinger, Halvorson stated in her deposition that her assistants were unwilling to help this year out of fear of being prosecuted.

Halvorson was dismissive of arguments from Governor Abbott and others that SB 1 is necessary to prevent voter fraud.

"Statistics show there is little to no voting fraud in Texas. We already have one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country," she said. "It’s like they are doing everything in their power to make sure our voices are not heard."

Texas has a history of enacting barriers to the polls — and some of the provisions in SB 1 were struck down by courts even before the law was passed.

A 2018 injunction from a previous case prevents Texas from limiting language assistance and interpretation services. Likewise, a court order in the SB 1 fight from June also undid some other restrictions, citing the 2018 ruling.

Courts have resisted efforts by Texas to dismiss the lawsuit over SB 1, including in a ruling in from May. Still, it seems unlikely that the case will be fully resolved before voters head to the polls in November.

Even if more sections of SB 1 get struck down, the law could still have the effect of confusing and intimidating voters, said Lisa Snead, a lawyer with Disability Rights Texas who's involved in the SB 1 lawsuit.

Personal assistants make low wages and often come from marginalized groups themselves — making it unlikely that many would want to swear an oath "under penalty of perjury" that they hadn't helped a voter.

"Just that language in and of itself is going to create barriers," Snead said.

Besides, Snead said, there's ambiguity on what exactly constitutes helping a voter. What if a disabled voter paid for gas or bought someone a coffee in exchange for a ride to the polls? Would that count as a form of financial compensation?

"Voters without disabilities don’t have to swear anything — and a lot of voters with disabilities already face huge access issues," she added. "There are already so many barriers for people with disabilities to vote that even these quote-unquote little things become the straw that breaks the camel's back."

Reached for comment on what exactly is allowed and prohibited under SB 1, the Texas secretary of state's office declined to say, citing the ongoing litigation. Instead, a spokesperson sent a copy of the state's Handbook for Election Judges and Clerks, which poll workers use.

The handbook — with almost 100 pages of formal legal language and references to particular subsections of state election law — is hardly the type of document that voters could use as a reference guide. Confusingly, the booklet also includes references to rules that poll workers "may not enforce" given previous court orders.

Snead mentioned the case of Teri Saltzman, a legally blind voter in Pflugerville who also gave a deposition in the lawsuit. A self-described "avid voter" who has received training with the League of Women Voters, Saltzman isn't someone who typically struggles with navigating voting. And yet, after voting by mail in the March primary, Saltzman has been unable to figure out if her vote even counted.

Saltzman's problems started in January, when she applied for a mail-in ballot as she typically does. Her application was rejected, ostensibly because she'd used the wrong ID number.

In another hurdle created by SB 1, the law allows Texans to include their social security, driver's license or voter ID number when applying for a mail-in ballot — but they have to use the same number every time, even if they don't remember which one they used previously.

"I put them all on there," Saltzman said in an interview. "They weren't going to get me."

This time, when Saltzman reapplied, she was told she wasn't registered at all.

"I'm holding a voter registration in my hand," she said. "How can that be?"

Saltzman reached out to Disability Rights Texas for help — but after multiple calls with state officials, she was never able to figure out exactly what the problem was. She was able to vote by mail in March, but after the election she received another letter describing purported issues with her ballot.

"I have no idea if my vote counted," she said.

"Voting means a lot to me," Saltzman added. "I'm pretty angry. I've never had this problem before — ever."

She isn't sure what she'll do in November. She wants to vote by mail on principle, and because it's easier and more convenient than trying to vote in-person as a blind person.

"I don't want to give in to the governor," she said. "Then again, I want him gone, so I want my vote to count."

Like Litzinger, Saltzman she had the knowledge and resources to navigate some of these voting hurdles. Still, she worries about other voters in her position.

"I know my rights," she said, but there's a "small percentage of people with disabilities" who would be willing to call and fight to make sure their vote counted. "Being able to stand up for yourself is not an easy thing to do."

Litzinger may be disabled, but she's never let her conditions limit her life. "I understand my limitations," she said. "I like to push the envelope."

She has four degrees, including a masters in theology and a bachelors in public policy. She serves as a policy specialist with Texas Parent to Parent, a support group for families of people with disabilities. In 2019, Governor Abbott appointed her to a state committee focused on special education. She currently serves as vice-chair.

In her free time, Litzinger dances with Body Shift, a dance group for people of all abilities. She reads poetry with Lion and Pirate, an inclusive open mic. Her writing explores her experience living with disabilities, as well as the stigma she sometimes faces from people without them.

In a piece from shortly after SB 1 passed last year, Litzinger shared some of her thoughts on voting — and the new challenges she could face this November.

"We know we shouldn’t be intimidated. We know we’re still entitled to our disability accommodations," she wrote. "Come on Ableism, stop trying to change the turnout to keep yourself on stage."

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