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Advocacy groups challenge Waukesha judge's restrictions on absentee ballot drop boxes

Maayan Silver
An absentee ballot box in Milwaukee in 2020.

Voting rights groups are challenging a Wisconsin trial court judge's ruling last week that restricts the use of absentee ballot drop boxes.

Waukesha County Judge Michael Bohren has sided with conservatives at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. Bohren ruled that absentee ballot drop boxes can’t be located anywhere other than offices of local election clerks. He also determined that ballots must only be returned by the voter.

Disability Rights Wisconsin, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice appealed Bohren’s ruling Thursday. They were granted an emergency hearing Friday afternoon before the trial court — on a request to have the court stay its ruling until after the state’s spring elections.

Attorney Jeffrey Mandell represents the voting groups. He said the state law doesn't support restricting drop boxes to just the clerk's offices and allowing only the voter to return an absentee ballot.

“That means that if I fully complete my absentee ballot, sign it, seal it intend to put it in the mail and on the way up that of the house, I forget and leave it on the kitchen table. And I text my wife and ask her to put it in the mailbox, the judge believes that my wife and I have both committed voter fraud. That is absurd," he said.

Mandell also challenges the timing of the ruling, which would require new guidance from the Wisconsin Elections Commission less than four weeks before an election. He said that's unconstitutional.

“The United States Supreme Court has held quite clearly and repeatedly over the last few years that they do not want to see election rules changed on the eve of an election because it causes voter confusion and disenfranchisement,” Mandell said.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty based its lawsuit on the idea that there are only two lawful ways to return a ballot in Wisconsin: at the polls or in-person at a clerk’s office.

WILL also wrote this in a report about the 2020 election: "This widespread adoption of absentee ballot drop boxes, not provided for under Wisconsin law, was correlated with an increase of about 20,000 votes for Joe Biden while having no significant effect on the vote for Trump."

WILL wrote that it “does not claim that the voters who used drop boxes were ineligible voters or should have had their votes rejected.” But the organization said drop boxes without established security present an “election vulnerability and a challenge to state law.”

In Milwaukee, voters were able to return absentee ballots at 15 locations during the 2020 election. Multiple audits and reviews of the election have found negligible amounts of voter fraud.

Maayan Silver has been a reporter with WUWM’s News Team since 2018.
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