Deadlocked Elections Commission keeps ballot drop box policies in place in Wisconsin

·4 min read

MADISON – The state Elections Commission kept in place its policies on absentee ballot drop boxes Friday after Democrats and Republicans on the panel split on what to do.

The decision to stand pat prompted a Republican state senator to call for the Legislature to sue the commission if it doesn't reverse course by early February.

The use of drop boxes faces challenges in court and from Republican lawmakers.

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A Waukesha County judge this month ruled ballot drop boxes are illegal, but an appeals court quickly blocked his ruling for now. The appeals judges said drop boxes could be used for the Feb. 15 primary for Milwaukee mayor and other offices across the state.

The state Supreme Court is considering whether to take up the case.

Separately, Republicans who control a legislative committee this month voted to force the commission to quickly establish formal rules on ballot drop boxes. That could clear the way for lawmakers to overturn the rules and ban drop boxes.

On Friday, the commission split on whether to withdraw guidance it provided to municipal clerks in 2020 that spelled out the best way to make sure drop boxes are secure. The guidance is not binding but is widely followed by clerks.

The three Republicans on the commission supported revoking the advice and the three Democrats supported leaving it in place. Because the commissioners deadlocked, the guidance remains in place.

Likewise, the commission split 3-3 on adopting emergency formal rules on drop boxes, with Republicans in favor and Democrats in opposition.

State Sen. Steve Nass, a Republican from Whitewater and a co-chairman of the Legislature's Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules, said afterward the Elections Commission had defied his committee's demands.

If the commissioners don't change course by Feb. 9, lawmakers "must rapidly commence litigation to end the unlawful actions of WEC," he said in a written statement. Whether he could prevail on legislative leaders to sign off on such a lawsuit is unclear.

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Drop boxes became popular in 2020 as voters turned to absentee voting in record numbers because of the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 500 of them were made available around the state, including at libraries in Milwaukee and fire stations in Madison. Many communities placed them inside or outside of government offices and some have them monitored by video cameras.

Those who oppose drop boxes argue they are not allowed in Wisconsin because state law says ballots can be returned only in person or by mail. Supporters say using ballot drop boxes counts as a form of returning ballots in person.

The fight over drop boxes comes as campaigns gear up in the races for governor and U.S. senator.

Republicans' views on ballot drop boxes have shifted since 2020. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester that year had his attorney write a letter that stated ballot drop boxes were authorized by state law. This week, Vos came out against them, though he did not spell out his exact views on them.

Last year, Republicans in the state Senate voted for legislation that would allow drop boxes in limited circumstances. The Assembly has not taken up that bill.

Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, a Republican running for governor, in November brought her own lawsuit asking the state Supreme Court to block the use of drop boxes.

The justices have not said whether they will take up that case.

Addresses on ballot paperwork

Also Friday, the commission refused to revoke guidance it adopted in 2016 that tells municipal clerks to fill in missing addresses for witnesses on absentee ballot paperwork when they can.

The policy was adopted at the behest of Republicans could make sure ballots are counted in cases when witnesses forget to include their ZIP code or city name on their paperwork.

Republican lawmakers turned against the policy after Donald Trump narrowly lost Wisconsin in his 2020 reelection bid.

GOP lawmakers have said the ballot paperwork can be corrected only by voters and witnesses, not clerks.

On a 4-2 vote, the commission declined to pull back its policy on witness addresses. Republican Commissioner Marge Bostelmann joined Democrats in voting to keep the commission's advice in place.

"I do feel that for municipalities this is probably good guidance for them," Bostelmann said.

The commission unanimously voted to start drafting two versions of emergency rules regarding ballot paperwork. The commission will decide later whether to advance either version of those rules.

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Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin election officials keep ballot drop box policies in place

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