The 4-3 judgment A month before the state’s Aug. 9 primaries, voters will narrow the fields for governor and U.S. senator. Both these matches are being watched closely at the national level.
For years, ballot boxes were used throughout Wisconsin without controversy. Election clerks greatly expanded their use during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 as absentee voting reached unprecedented levels.
During the presidential election, more than 500 ballot boxes were placed across Wisconsin. Some Republicans have blocked their use, pointing to state law that requires absentee ballots to be “mailed by the voter or delivered in person to the municipal clerk issuing the ballot or ballots.”
The state’s high court ruled Friday that voters must return absentee ballots and cannot use drop boxes.
“The key phrase is ‘in person’ and should be assigned its natural meaning,” Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote for the majority.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley said the majority was “dangerous to democracy.”
“It has the opportunity to make voting difficult or to inject confusion into the process whenever the opportunity presents itself,” he wrote.
The two Bradleys in court are not related.
The majority opinion categorically stated that “ballot boxes are illegal under Wisconsin statutes,” without distinguishing between staffed and unstaffed. Opponents said the issue remains unresolved because the lower court found that drop boxes in staff and clerical offices can be used.
The conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Freedom launched the lawsuit last year Sued Drop boxes were used on behalf of two suburban Milwaukee men. State law does not specify ballot boxes and the lawsuit challenged their use “casts doubt on the integrity of elections and undermines voter confidence in the electoral process,” and “both have the right to have the elections in which they participate properly conducted under the law.”
State election officials and disability rights advocates who intervened in the case supported the use of drop boxes, saying they provide a way for voters to return ballots in person. Additionally, they argued, state law does not prevent voters from having their spouse, friend or someone else deliver their completed ballot to a clerk.
In January, Waukesha County Circuit Judge Michael Bohren ruled in favor The plaintiffs. He concluded that state law does not allow for unmanned ballot boxes, requiring absentee voters to return their ballots in person or place them in mailboxes themselves.
The state Supreme Court blocked Boren’s order for judicial and school board primaries in February because they were fast approaching. But in April, judges barred the use of Dropbox for general elections for those offices.
On Friday, the court sided with the lower court and issued a permanent ruling that would affect future elections, starting with next month’s primaries. Clerks began mailing absentee ballots last month.
Thirty states and the District of Columbia allow ballot boxes. According to the US Vote Foundation. Thirty-one states have laws that allow voters to have someone else return their ballot. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some of those states allow voters to appoint anyone they want to the role, while others limit it to family members or caregivers.
Wisconsin law states that no person “shall receive or deliver a ballot from a person other than a responsible election official.” Those bringing the suit argued that the policy should be strictly followed, meaning it would be illegal for someone to drop off their elderly parents’ ballots for them or for church members to collect ballots after a service and then take them to a clerk’s office.
The majority agreed with that assessment.
Republicans are increasingly concerned about large-scale vote-gathering efforts by partisan actors. While some have engaged in that practice in other states, in Wisconsin in 2020, when Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump in the state, neither party engaged in extensive vote-getting efforts.
A lower court ruled that only voters could place returned mail-in ballots in mailboxes — something that dismayed disability advocates because some voters couldn’t physically go to the polls or mail their ballots.
The Supreme Court didn’t go so far, saying that a voter can’t now talk about whether someone else can place a postal ballot.
Rick Esenberg, chairman of the group behind the lawsuit, said in a statement that the ruling “provides substantial clarity on the legal status of involuntary ballot boxes and ballot harvesting.”
The decision fell on ideological grounds, with judges elected with the support of a majority of Republicans and judges with the support of Democrats in dissent.
Judge Brian Hagedorn, who won the 2019 race with the help of Republicans, was being closely watched by both parties but has sided with the court’s three liberals in a series of high-profile cases.
Hagedorn signed on to Bradley’s decision, giving conservatives the four votes needed for a majority.
In a concurring opinion, Hagedorn urged lawmakers to clarify the state’s election laws, some of which were first enacted more than a century ago.
“Some citizens will cheer this decision; others will lament,” he wrote of the majority decision. “But the people of Wisconsin must remember that judicial decision-making and politics are separate under our constitutional mandate. Our duty is to follow the law, even if the policy decision is unpopular or unpopular. Even so, we must follow the law anyway.