Wisconsin Supreme Court to hear ballot box arguments

The Wisconsin Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments on Wednesday in a case that will likely determine the extent to which mail-in ballot boxes can be used in the upcoming midterm elections where the battleground state’s Democratic governor and the Republican U.S. senator are on the ballot.

In February, the court banned the use of drop boxes outside the offices of the electoral clerk for the April spring elections, where local offices such as the mayor, city council and school board were decided. But the larger question the court has yet to address is whether to allow secure ballot boxes in places such as libraries, grocery stores and other locations.

The fight is being watched closely as Republicans push to limit access to mail-in ballots following President Joe Biden’s narrow win in Wisconsin over Donald Trump in 2020 by just under 21,000 votes. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers and U.S. Senator Ron Johnson are on the ballot in November.

State law is silent on drop boxes, but Wisconsin’s bipartisan Election Commission has told local election officials they can be placed in multiple locations.

A Waukesha County judge ruled in January that the Election Commission guidelines were against the law and that the guidelines were in fact an invalid administrative rule because it was not put in place properly. The state Supreme Court will also decide to let the judge’s ruling prohibiting anyone other than the voter from returning a mail-in ballot stand.

The election commission rescinded its guidelines pending the outcome of the court’s decision.

Disability advocates and others argue that the restriction makes it more difficult for some voters with reduced mobility or other physical disabilities to return their ballots.

Wisconsin’s top election official said last year that at least 528 drop boxes were used by more than 430 communities in the presidential election. The popularity of mail-in voting exploded during the pandemic in 2020, with over 40% of all voters voting by mail, a record high.

All eyes in Wednesday’s arguments will be on swing judge Brian Hagedorn, a conservative who sometimes sides with the court’s liberal minority.

In January, Hagedorn sided with the liberals and suspended a lower court ruling banning drop boxes outside clerks’ offices for the February primary. But in February, Hagedorn reversed course and sided with the conservative majority in reinstating the lower court ruling that put the ban in effect for the April election and beyond pending a decision by the Supreme Court.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two Milwaukee voters by the conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. He is opposed by the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, the Wisconsin Elections Commission, Disability Rights Wisconsin, Wisconsin Faith Voice For Justice and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.

Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature also tried to enact laws limiting the use of mail-in ballots, but Evers vetoed them.

Republicans have taken similar steps since Trump’s defeat to tighten ballot access in other battleground states. The restrictions specifically target voting methods that are gaining popularity and raise barriers to mail-in and early voting that saw explosive growth at the start of the pandemic.

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