OPINION: This article may contain commentary which reflects the author's opinion.
A Wisconsin judge has dealt a stunning blow to Democrats in the state with a decision to end absentee ballot drop boxes in the state.
Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Michael Bohren said that state law allows absentee ballots to be returned in person or by mail but not by drop boxes, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
“It’s all good and nice, but there’s no authority to do it,” he said of the drop boxes.
He said he would finalize an injunction in 10 days ordering the state Elections Commission to withdraw long-standing advice to municipal clerks around the state that says they can use absentee ballot drop boxes.
Drop boxes have long been available in some Wisconsin communities, but their use expanded greatly in 2020 when absentee voting exploded because of the coronavirus pandemic. More than 500 of them were available during the presidential election, according to a database compiled by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.
Bohren’s ruling barring the use of drop boxes — if it survives an almost-certain appeal — will affect how ballots can be returned in next month’s low-turnout primary for the spring elections. It will have more far-reaching consequences in the fall, when far more people vote.
The lawsuit was filed by Richard Teigen of Hartland and Richard Thom of Menomonee Falls who were represented by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
The attorney, Luke Berg, successfully argued that state law limits how the ballots can be returned.
“The guidance from the Wisconsin Elections Commission on absentee ballot drop boxes was unlawful. There are just two legal methods to cast an absentee ballot in Wisconsin: through the mail or in-person at a clerk’s office. And voters must return their own ballots. We are pleased the court made this clear, providing Wisconsin voters with certainty for forthcoming elections,” he said.
The attorneys for the state Elections Commission argued that the law was not specific in how the ballots could be returned to the state but the judge disagreed.
The decision by the judge also prevents others from being able to bring the ballot back for them which means that political groups cannot do ballot harvesting. Voters are also not able to have their spouse or neighbor bring a ballot in for them.
“The legislature finds that voting is a constitutional right, the vigorous exercise of which should be strongly encouraged. In contrast, voting by absentee ballot is a privilege exercised wholly outside the traditional safeguards of the polling place. The legislature finds that the privilege of voting by absentee ballot must be carefully regulated to prevent the potential for fraud or abuse; to prevent overzealous solicitation of absent electors who may prefer not to participate in an election; to prevent undue influence on an absent elector to vote for or against a candidate or to cast a particular vote in a referendum; or other similar abuses,” the state law reads.
“The ballot shall be sealed by the elector and returned to the municipal clerk either by mail or by personal delivery of the agent; but if the ballot is returned on the day of the election, the agent shall make personal delivery to the polling place serving the hospitalized elector’s residence before the closing hour or, in municipalities where absentee ballots are canvassed under s. 7.52, to the municipal clerk no later than 8 p.m. on election day,” it stated.
It states that “[t]he envelope [containing the ballot] shall be mailed by the elector, or delivered in person, to the municipal clerk issuing the ballot or ballots.”
The decision is likely to be appealed.