State Supreme Court rules unmanned ballot drop boxes illegal in Wisconsin

In this July 7, 2020 file photo, a woman wearing gloves drops off a mail-in ballot at a drop...
In this July 7, 2020 file photo, a woman wearing gloves drops off a mail-in ballot at a drop box in Hackensack, N.J.(AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
Published: Jul. 8, 2022 at 8:17 AM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WBAY) - The Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled that the state’s elections commission cannot permit unmanned absentee voting by ballot drop boxes during elections. The ruling states the boxes are illegal under Wisconsin statutes.

The ruling was 4-3, upheld by the court’s conservative majority.

“Ballot drop boxes appear nowhere in the detailed statutory system for absentee voting,” reads the ruling issued Friday. “WEC’s authorization of ballot drop boxes was unlawful, and we therefore affirm the circuit court’s declarations and permanent injunction of WEC’s erroneous interpretations of law except to the extent its remedies required absentee voters to personally mail their ballots.”

The ruling states only the state legislature can permit voting by unmanned drop boxes.

“An absentee ballot must be returned by mail or the voter must personally deliver it to the municipal clerk at the clerk’s office or a designated alternate site,” reads the ruling.

Voters Richard Teigen and Richard Thom brought a complaint against the Wisconsin Elections Commission, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Disabilities Rights Wisconsin, Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice and the League of Women Voters Wisconsin. Friday’s Supreme Court ruling upheld a circuit court ruling in Waukesha County.

In spring 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe sent a memo to municipal clerks and local election officials stating drop boxes could be used for voters to return ballots “but clerks should ensure they are secure, can be monitored for security purposes, and should be regularly emptied. A second memo encouraged “creative solutions” for the use of ballot drop boxes, stating they could be unstaffed.

“Administrator Wolfe avers she is aware of 528 ballot drop boxes utilized for the fall 2020 election. By the spring 2021 election, Administrator Wolfe says municipal clerks and local election officials reported 570 drop boxes, spanning 66 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. "

The voters filed suit and and the defendants appealed to the Supreme Court.

The court did not rule Friday on the legality of someone else mailing an absentee ballot on another person’s behalf.

“The documents do not address whether voters who mail an absentee ballot must personally place the ballot into a mailbox or if a voter’s agent may do so. We therefore do not decide at this time whether the law permits a voter’s agent to place an absentee ballot in the mail on the voter’s behalf,” reads the ruling.

In her dissent, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote the decision will make it more difficult to vote.

“A ballot drop box is a simple and perfectly legal solution to make voting easier, especially in the midst of a global pandemic. But it is apparently a bridge too far for a majority of this court, which once again rejects a practice that would expand voter participation,” Bradley wrote.

CLICK HERE to read the full ruling.

CLICK HERE to track your ballot.

Reaction was split down party lines. Republicans celebrating the ruling. Democrats voiced criticism of the ruling.

“They’ve further disenfranchised Wisconsinites. so I am appalled that we are making it harder for folks to exercise their constitutional right to cast a ballot in our democracy,” said Emily Tseffos of the Democratic Party of Outagamie County.

“Most voters hold the election process sacred and they want to ensure that their vote is properly counted, properly processed, and one person - one vote. So, huge win, huge win,” said James Fitzgerald, Republican Party of Brown County.

Gov. Tony Evers (D) also said the order would make it more difficult for some to vote.

“A basic but defining feature of our state and our country is the notion that politicians should not be able to abuse their power to prevent eligible voters from casting their ballots or cheat by changing the rules just because they didn’t like the outcome of the last election.

“At the very heart of our democracy is the fundamental right for every eligible voter to be able to cast their ballot—a right that’s far too important to be left to the whims of any politician or political party. We should be working every day to protect that fundamental right by making it as easy as possible for every eligible voter to vote in Wisconsin.

“Today’s decision is another in a long line of Wisconsin Republicans’ successes to make it harder for Wisconsinites to exercise their right to vote, to undermine our free, fair, and secure elections, and to threaten our democracy.”

Gov. Tony Evers

Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels called it a victory for “election integrity.” Michels is running on eliminating the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

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