Milwaukee leaders bristle at Supreme Court ruling barring ballot drop boxes and its references to corrupt elections in dictatorships

·6 min read
A ballot drop box on the sidewalk outside the Washington Park Library on 2121 N. Sherman Blvd. on in Milwaukee on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020.  - Mike De Sisti / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
A ballot drop box on the sidewalk outside the Washington Park Library on 2121 N. Sherman Blvd. on in Milwaukee on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020. - Mike De Sisti / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Leaders in Wisconsin's largest city bristled in response to a Supreme Court ruling Friday prohibiting the use of unstaffed drop boxes for absentee ballots.

And they had sharp criticism for language in the ruling raising the specter of elections conducted in authoritarian dictatorships like Iraq, Cuba, Syria and North Korea.

"An audit and recounts have proven that there is no doubt on the results of the 2020 election ... nor do I think that our 2020 election was comparable to any authoritarian regimes that were referenced," Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Claire Woodall-Vogg told the Journal Sentinel.

The court's ruling reflected a very strict interpretation of state statute, she said, adding that the city will "work within their ruling to make sure that we keep voting as accessible as possible to voters, especially absentee voters."

The majority opinion written by Justice Rebecca Bradley said state law does not permit drop boxes anywhere other than election clerk offices and only state lawmakers may make new policy stating otherwise — not the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which issued guidance to clerks allowing them.

Supporters of drop boxes argue they represent a form of in-person voting prescribed in state law.

The 4-3 ruling is a win for Republicans who now oppose the longstanding use of ballot drop boxes after their heavy use during the pandemic was criticized by former President Donald Trump. He has alleged with no evidence that absentee voting was rife with fraud and led to his reelection loss in 2020.

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Joe Biden beat Trump by nearly 21,000 votes in Wisconsin in the November 2020 election. Recounts and courts have confirmed his win.

The underlying dispute over absentee voting policies began last year when the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty filed the lawsuit on behalf of two suburban Milwaukee men.

"While the question of whether an agent may mail an absentee ballot remains open, Wisconsin voters can have confidence that state law, not guidance from the Wisconsin Elections Commission, has the final word on how Wisconsin elections are conducted,” Rick Esenberg, president and chief counsel of WILL, said in a statement.

The ruling also marks a blow to Democrats in the blue cities of Milwaukee and Madison, where drop boxes are popular, and it comes a month before a partisan primary election for offices including governor and U.S. senator.

The ruling means the 15 drop boxes Milwaukee installed in response to demand in 2020 will remain closed, and the Election Commission will staff curbside drop-off locations at early voting sites every day of early voting, Woodall-Vogg said. The effort marks an expansion of the city's drive-up option that was offered on the two Saturdays before the April election.

The drop boxes, which are currently locked and rendered inaccessible with a locked cover, will not immediately be removed.

As of Friday, the city had issued about 26,000 ballots, with about 3,800 returned, she said.

Right now, voters can drop off their absentee ballots at the Election Commission's City Hall office, which will also be able to accept ballots on the Monday and Tuesday of the week of the election, she said.

The city will staff a curbside drop-off location on Market Street all day during those two days so residents do not have to contend with parking and going to the fifth floor of City Hall.

However, a key difference following the ruling will be that voters will not be able to drop off their ballots at the Election Commission's City Hall office during early voting from July 26 through Aug. 6, she said. Instead, they will have to go to the Frank P. Zeidler Municipal Building at 841 North Broadway to return their ballots in person during that time.

"To think that we couldn't also have our office function as a place to return absentee ballots — it's where our mail is returned — seems illogical, but it is being focused on and it is something that we absolutely will adhere to since it has been made crystal clear that we cannot accept ballots there or have any type of absentee voting at our office when in-person absentee voting is being conducted," Woodall-Vogg said.

Absentee ballot drop box locations in 2020

More than 500 absentee ballot drop boxes were available to Wisconsin voters for the 2020 general election but could soon be eliminated for fall elections. These drop box locations are self-reported by municipalities to the Wisconsin Elections Commission and may not be comprehensive.

Created by: Yuriko Schumacher/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Source: Wisconsin Elections Commission

She also said the decision would impact smaller communities and suburbs, where voters are accustomed to putting their absentee ballots into the same drop box attached to their municipal buildings where they also submit tax and water bills.

Woodall-Vogg said the city is working to clarify what the ruling means for voters with disabilities and hoped to provide additional guidance next week.

At a number of points, the majority decision called into question the results of the election due to the use of drop boxes, refere authoritarian regimes.

"If the right to vote is to have any meaning at all, elections must be conducted according to law," Bradley's majority decision stated.

"Throughout history, tyrants have claimed electoral victory via elections conducted in violation of governing law. For example, Saddam Hussein was reportedly elected in 2002 by a unanimous vote of all eligible voters in Iraq. Examples of such corruption are replete in history."

In another place, it states: "The illegality of these drop boxes weakens the people's faith that the election produced an outcome reflective of their will. The Wisconsin voters, and all lawful voters, are injured when the institution charged with administering Wisconsin elections does not follow the law, leaving the results in question."

Mayor Cavalier Johnson in an interview called the decision "disheartening" and said its language is "strong and is also wrong."

The references to questions about the validity of election results align with some of the false claims Trump has raised about the 2020 election, he said.

"The election that we had here in Milwaukee and in Wisconsin was fair, it was transparent, it was above-board and the drop boxes presented another way for voters to have access to voting," Johnson said.

Milwaukee County Clerk George Christenson accused the conservative bloc of the state Supreme Court of continuing to perpetuate lies about the election, calling it "pathetic."

"It just completely falls in line with the Republican Party’s and Donald Trump's talking points," he said. "And that does not bode well for the confidence and legitimacy of our Supreme Court, when you have conservative Supreme Court members echoing the sentiments of unfounded conspiracy theories and referencing outrageous election results that are clearly not legitimate such as Saddam Hussein and the others that were mentioned."

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said in a statement that the court had made it harder for residents to vote, undermining a central tenet of democracy.

"This ruling continues a disgusting tradition of attacking the voting rights of people who’ve historically been kept out of the voting booth due to intimidation, violence, and racial discrimination in voting laws," he said.

Molly Beck and Isaac Yu of the Journal Sentinel contributed to this story.

Contact Alison Dirr at 414-224-2383 or adirr@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter @AlisonDirr

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee leaders criticize ruling banning absentee ballot drop boxes