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Wisconsin Supreme Court changes course and allows expanded use of mail-in ballots in fall

By TODD RICHMOND – Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Friday that officials can set up mail-in ballot drop boxes in their communities in this fall’s election, overturning its own ruling two years ago that had restricted their use in the swing state in the presidential election.

In July 2022, the court restricted the use of drop boxes, ruling that they could only be placed in the offices of local election officials and that no one other than the voter could return the ballot in person.

At the time, conservatives controlled the court, but Janet Protasiewicz’s election victory in April 2023 brought liberals into the court. Priorities USA, a progressive voter mobilization group, saw an opportunity and asked the court in February to reconsider the decision.

According to the US Vote Foundation, at least 29 other states allow mail-in ballots, and increased use in Wisconsin could have a significant impact on the presidential election campaign.

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Wisconsin is likely to be a crucial swing state again after President Joe Biden narrowly won it in 2020 and Donald Trump narrowly won it in 2016. Democrats believe that making mail-in voting easier will increase voter turnout on their side.

The justices announced in March that they would review the drop box ban but would not consider other parts of the case. The move drew ire from the court’s conservatives, who accused the liberals of trying to give Democrats an advantage this fall. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers asked the court in April to allow drop boxes to be reinstated.

The court ruled on Friday by a vote of 4:3 that mailboxes can be used at any location.

Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, one of the court’s four liberal justices, wrote for the majority that dropping a ballot into a drop box set up and maintained by a local poll worker is no different than handing the ballot to the worker, regardless of the drop box’s location. Local poll workers have wide discretion in how elections are conducted, and that includes the use and location of drop boxes, she added.

“Our decision today does not compel or require municipal employees to use mailboxes,” Bradley wrote. “It simply affirms what (state law) has always meant: that employees may lawfully use secure mailboxes within the scope of their legally granted discretion.”

All three conservative justices dissented, with Justice Rebecca Bradley writing that the liberals were simply trying to advance their political agenda and criticizing them for ignoring the precedent set by the 2022 ruling.

“The majority in this case is overturning (the 2022 decision) not because it is legally wrong, but because the majority finds it politically inopportune,” Bradley wrote. “The majority’s activism marks another triumph of political power over legal principles in this Court.”

The popularity of mail-in voting exploded during the pandemic in 2020. More than 40% of all voters cast their ballots by mail – a record high. For this year’s election, at least 500 drop boxes were installed in more than 430 communities, including more than a dozen each in Madison and Milwaukee – the state’s two most Democratic cities.

Trump and Republicans have claimed that drop boxes enabled fraud, although they have provided no evidence of this. Democrats, election officials and some Republicans have argued that the boxes are secure, and an Associated Press poll of state election officials found no cases of fraud, vandalism or theft that could have affected the outcome in 2020.

Republicans who control the Wisconsin legislature intervened in the case, arguing that the justices should leave the 2022 ruling alone. Their attorney, Misha Tseytlin, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Friday.

Matt Fisher, a spokesman for the state Republican Party, called the decision a “setback.”

“This latest attempt by left-wing judges to appease their radical left supporters will not go unanswered by voters,” he said in a statement.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Whatley also said in a statement that the decision “gives Democrats the green light to dismantle election security and encourage voter fraud.”

Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell, who manages elections in the state’s most Democratic county, called drop boxes a “common sense tool.” He said they make the voting process more convenient and easier for rural and disabled voters and help reduce the number of ballots that arrive too late to be counted after Election Day.

“Providing drop boxes for the 2024 elections in August and November will encourage citizen participation in our democracy,” McDonell said in a statement.

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