Photo: Rick Esenberg — the president of the conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which brought the lawsuit challenging drop boxes and collecting ballots.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court, which is conservatively controlled, ruled on Friday that no one can personally return a ballot on behalf of another voter and that most ballot drop boxes cannot be used. This decision is a setback for Democrats ahead of important elections in this historically competitive state.
Democrats and voting rights organizations had argued that limiting ballot drop boxes would make it more difficult for some residents, particularly those with disabilities, to cast ballots. While this was going on, Wisconsin’s conservative interests had argued that widespread use of ballot drop boxes and other voting procedures during the 2020 election violated state law and left room for fraud.
Although state law does not specifically mention ballot boxes, the majority of the court said in its 4-3 decision on Friday that this does not mean that they are legal. The detailed statutory system for absentee voting does not mention ballot drop boxes, according to Justice Rebecca Bradley.
During the height of the pandemic, the Wisconsin Election Commission, a six-member body that helps oversee voting in the state, issued instructions to local election clerks allowing the use of drop boxes to return absentee ballots for the 2020 election. The majority of the court found that this overstepped the commission’s authority. The court ruled that absentee ballots could be left by the voter at the clerk’s office or another predetermined location, but not at an unattended ballot box.
The justices left open the possibility of some third-party ballot collection because they did not address the question of whether someone can mail a ballot on another voter’s behalf.
The decision, which establishes the ground rules for this year’s high-stakes elections in Wisconsin, comes about a month before the state’s primary elections on August 9. In a contest that could determine which party controls the US Senate, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and Democrat Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers are running for re-election. And the outcome of the elections in Wisconsin and a few other key battleground states will probably determine the outcome of the 2024 presidential race.
Evers referred to the decision as “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” in a statement released on Friday.
The lawsuit challenging drop boxes and gathering ballots on behalf of other voters was brought by the conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, whose president, Rick Esenberg, said the ruling provides “substantial clarity.”
In a statement published on Twitter, he said, “Wisconsin voters can have confidence that state law, not guidance from the (Wisconsin Election Commission), has the final word on how Wisconsin elections are conducted.”
After President Joe Biden won the state by just over 21,000 votes in 2020, the Wisconsin Election Commission’s guidelines easing voting procedures during the pandemic came under harsh criticism, including calls to dismantle the bipartisan body from some Wisconsin Republicans.
The use of ballot drop boxes has increased in recent elections in the Badger State: according to statistics cited in Friday’s decision, more than 520 ballot drop boxes were used in the general election of 2020, and that number rose to 570 during spring elections in 2021 across 66 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties.
Republicans in control of the Wisconsin Legislature have also attempted to pass laws restricting the use of absentee ballots, but Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has vetoed them.
Republicans have taken similar actions to restrict voting access in other battleground states states after Trump’s defeat.