Ballot drop boxes not allowed in Wisconsin, state supreme court rules

MADISON, Wis. — A divided Wisconsin Supreme Court barred the use of most ballot drop boxes on Friday and ruled voters could not give their completed absentee ballots to others to return on their behalf, a practice that some conservatives disparage as “ballot harvesting.”

It’s a ruling feared by voting rights proponents, who said ahead of time such a decision would make it harder for voters — particularly those with disabilities — to return their absentee ballots. Many Republicans hoped for a ruling that they said would help prevent someone from casting a ballot in the name of someone else.

The 4-3 ruling came a month before the state’s Aug. 9 primaries, when voters will narrow the fields for governor and U.S. senator. Both contests in this battleground state are being closely watched nationally.

For years, ballot drop boxes were used without controversy across Wisconsin. Election clerks greatly expanded their use in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic as absentee voting hit unprecedented levels.

By the time of the presidential election, more than 500 ballot drop boxes were in place across Wisconsin. Some Republicans balked at their use, pointing to a state law that says an absentee ballot must “be mailed by the elector, or delivered in person, to the municipal clerk issuing the ballot or ballots.”

The state’s high court on Friday ruled that means voters themselves must return absentee ballots and cannot use drop boxes.

“The key phrase is ‘in person’ and it must be assigned its natural meaning,” Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote for the majority.

More states are using ballot drop boxes for absentee voters, but the boxes are already drawing skepticism

In a dissent, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley called the majority “dangerous to democracy.”

“It has seemingly taken the opportunity to make it harder to vote or to inject confusion into the process whenever it has been presented with the opportunity,” she wrote.

The two Bradleys on the court are not related.

The majority opinion flatly stated “ballot drop boxes are illegal under Wisconsin statutes” without distinguishing between those that are staffed and those that are unstaffed. The dissenters said they considered the matter unresolved because the lower court found that drop boxes that were staffed and in clerk’s offices could be used.

The case started last year when the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty brought a lawsuit over the use of drop boxes on behalf of two suburban Milwaukee men. State law does not mention ballot drop boxes and the lawsuit argued their use “causes doubts about the fairness of the elections and erodes voter confidence in the electoral process,” and that the two men “are entitled to have the elections in which they participate administered properly under the law.”

State election officials and disability rights advocates who intervened in the case defended the use of drop boxes, saying they offered a way for voters to return ballots in person. In addition, they contended nothing in state law bars voters from having their spouse, a friend or someone else deliver their completed ballot to a clerk so…

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