Wisconsin's conservative-controlled Supreme Court ruled Friday that absentee ballot drop boxes may be placed only in election offices and that no one other than the voter can return a ballot in person, dealing a critical defeat to Democrats in the battleground state.
The court did not address the question of whether anyone other than the voter can return his or her own ballot by mail. Election officials and others had argued that drop boxes are a secure and convenient way for voters to return ballots.
The decision sets absentee ballot rules for the Aug. 9 primary and the fall election; Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers are seeking reelection in key races.
The court's 4-3 ruling also has critical implications in the 2024 presidential race, in which Wisconsin will again be among a handful of battleground states. President Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in 2020 by just under 21,000 votes, four years after Trump narrowly won the state by a similar margin.
The popularity of absentee voting exploded during the pandemic in 2020, with more than 40% of all voters casting mail ballots, a record high. At least 500 drop boxes were set up in more than 430 communities for the election that year, including more than a dozen each in Madison and Milwaukee — the state's two most heavily Democratic cities.
After Trump lost the state, he and Republicans alleged that drop boxes facilitated cheating, even though they offered no evidence. Democrats, elections officials and some Republicans argued the boxes are secure.
The conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty sued in 2021. The state Supreme Court in February barred the use of drop boxes outside election clerk offices in the April election for local offices, such as mayor, city council and school board seats. The court ruled Friday on the question of whether to allow secure ballot boxes in places such as libraries and grocery stores.
State law is silent on drop boxes and the court said absentee ballots can be returned only to the clerk's office or a designated alternative site but that site cannot be an unstaffed drop box. The bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission had told local election officials the boxes can be placed at multiple locations and that ballots can be returned by people other than the voter, but put that on hold pending the Supreme Court's ruling.
Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature have also tried to enact laws limiting the use of absentee ballots, but Evers has vetoed them.
Republican House Speaker Robin Vos called the decision "a giant step forward in our efforts to ensure election integrity" and said the next step is electing a Republican governor who can sign their election reforms.
In a statement, Democratic Governor Tony Evers said "politicians should not be able to abuse their power to prevent eligible voters from casting their ballots or cheat by changing the rules just because they didn't like the outcome of the last election."
"The big picture is that Wisconsin used to have an easy way to vote. And now we don't, and making it harder to vote is unhealthy for a democracy. We have chosen to do the wrong thing here," said Scott Thompson of Law Forward, a firm that represented three of the intervening groups in the case.
He added that drop boxes have long been "a convenient way for people to play their part in democracy" and that the ruling has thrown a "curveball" that could cause confusion right before the August primaries.
Republicans have made similar moves since Trump's defeat to tighten access to ballots in other battleground states. The restrictions especially target voting methods that have been rising in popularity, erecting hurdles to mail balloting and early voting that saw explosive growth during the pandemic.
The majority opinion was written by Justice Rebecca Bradley and she was joined by fellow conservative Justices Patience Roggensack, Brian Hagedorn and Chief Justice Annette Ziegler. The dissenting three liberal justices were Ann Walsh Bradley, Rebecca Dallet and Jill Karofsky.
Aaron Navarro contributed to this report.
for more features.