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Wisconsin Supreme Court considers expanding use of drop boxes for absentee voting

The Wisconsin Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in a Democratic-driven case to overturn a ruling that all but eliminated the use of absentee ballot drop boxes in the swing state.

President Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in Wisconsin by just under 21,000 votes in 2020, four years after Trump narrowly won the state by a similar margin.

Since his defeat, Trump had claimed without evidence that drop boxes led to voter fraud. Democrats, election officials and some Republicans argued that the boxes are secure.

At issue is whether to overturn the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s July 2022 ruling that said nothing in state law allowed absentee mailboxes to be placed anywhere other than election clerks’ offices. Conservative justices controlled the court then, but last year the court shifted to liberal control, setting the stage to possibly overturn the ruling.

Changing the ruling now “threatens to politicize this Court and cast a shadow on the election” and unleash a new wave of legal challenges, lawyers for the Republican National Committee and the Wisconsin Republican Party argued in court papers.

There have been no changes in the facts or the law to justify overturning the ruling, and anyway, we are too close to the election to make changes now, they maintain.

Democrats argue that the court misinterpreted the law in its 2022 ruling by wrongly concluding that absentee ballots can only be returned to an employee in their office and not to a mailbox they control located elsewhere. Clerks should be allowed to “decide for themselves how and where to accept returned absentee ballots,” lawyers argue in court papers.

Priorities USA, a liberal voter mobilization group, and the Wisconsin Retired Voters Alliance asked the court to reconsider the 2022 ruling. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which administers elections, support its overturning.

Lawyers for the groups that filed the challenge say in court papers that the mailboxes became controversial only “when those determined to cast doubt on election results that did not favor their preferred candidates and causes turned them into a political punching bag.”

Election officials from four counties, including the state’s two largest and most Democratic, filed a brief in support of overturning the ruling. They argue that absentee ballot drop boxes have been used for decades without incident as a secure way for voters to return their ballots.

More than 1,600 absentee ballots arrived at clerks’ offices after Election Day 2022, when drop boxes were not in use and therefore not counted, Democratic lawyers noted in their arguments. But in 2020, when drop boxes were used and nearly three times as many people voted absentee, only 689 ballots arrived after the election.

Drop boxes were used in 39 other states during the 2022 elections, according to the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project.

The popularity of absentee voting skyrocketed during the 2020 pandemic, with more than 40% of all Wisconsin voters casting their ballot by mail, a record. More than 500 drop boxes were installed in more than 430 communities for that year’s elections, including more than a dozen in Madison and Milwaukee, the state’s two most Democratic cities.