Wisconsin Republicans in court over absentee ballot boxes

Scott Bauer
Associated Press

Madison, Wis. – The conservative push to effectively end absentee ballot drop boxes in Wisconsin is scheduled to return to a courtroom on Thursday in a case that seeks to prohibit dropping ballots off anywhere other than at the local clerk’s office.

The lawsuit is one of three on the topic and part of a multipronged attack on absentee ballot boxes by Republicans in Wisconsin. Republicans are also attempting to change state law to limit ballot boxes and force the bipartisan state elections commission to enact rules restricting their location.

The Republican push on absentee ballot boxes comes after President Joe Biden narrowly won Wisconsin over Donald Trump by just under 21,000 votes. A Republican-ordered investigation into the election is ongoing, even after numerous lawsuits, recounts and other probes have upheld Biden’s victory and determined there was no widespread fraud.

Republicans have made similar moves since Trump’s defeat to tighten access to ballots in other battleground states. The restrictions especially target voting methods that have been rising in popularity and erecting hurdles to mail balloting and early voting that saw explosive growth earlier in the pandemic. More than 40% of all voters in the 2020 presidential election cast mail ballots, a record high.

In Wisconsin, Waukesha County Judge Michael Bohren was scheduled to hear arguments Thursday on whether absentee ballots could only be returned by mail or dropped off at the local election clerk’s office by the person who cast the vote. Events like “Democracy in the Park,” in which election officials accepted absentee ballots at more than 200 city parks in 2020, would be prohibited.

The lawsuit brought on behalf of two Milwaukee voters by the conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty is opposed by the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, the Wisconsin Elections Commission, Disability Rights Wisconsin, Wisconsin Faith Voice For Justice, and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.

The voters who brought the lawsuit up for a hearing Thursday argue that it is wrong for the state elections commission to say that ballot drop boxes can be unstaffed, temporary or permanent.

Wisconsin state law is silent on drop boxes, leading to a push from Republicans who control the Legislature to pass legislation specifying where they can be placed. The elections commission has advised that local clerks can put drop boxes wherever they want, while some Republicans have said that is illegal.

Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers speaks at Cumberland Elementary School, July 8, 2021, in Whitefish Bay, Wis.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers last year vetoed Republican bills that would have limited the location of absentee ballot drop boxes and who could return the ballots.

The use of ballot boxes exploded in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

There are two other lawsuits on the same issue. Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, a Republican candidate for governor, made similar arguments in a case she asked the conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court to take directly. It has not said whether it will hear the case and earlier ruled it would not take a ballot box challenge before it had worked its way through lower courts.

A third lawsuit was brought earlier this month by a voter from Hartland who is also represented by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. He is suing to overturn the state elections commission’s rejection of a complaint he filed about ballot boxes.

On Monday, Republicans on a legislative committee voted to force the elections commission to adopt formal rules on ballot boxes, a move that could result in them being banned as soon as this spring, and likely more lawsuits.