Ballot boxes return to Wisconsin after Supreme Court ruling

Liberals on the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday cleared the way for absentee ballot drop boxes, changing voting rules four months before the presidential election and reversing a decision made two years ago by conservatives when they held the court’s majority.

The 4-3 ruling came a year after liberals won a majority on the high court in a crucial swing state and six months after they overturned a gerrymander that had long given Republicans a huge majority in state legislatures. The prospect of other major decisions was made clear this week as the justices agreed to hear two abortion cases and heard an appeal over the gutting of parts of a law that has crippled union rights for government workers for more than a decade.

Ballot drop boxes were available in some Wisconsin communities for years, and their use was greatly expanded for the 2020 presidential election, when voters turned to mail-in voting because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Top Wisconsin Republicans supported them at the time, but turned against them after Joe Biden narrowly defeated President Donald Trump in the state.

Four months before the 2022 midterm elections, conservatives then in control of the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of a group of voters who argued that ballot drop boxes could not be used because state law did not specifically authorize them. A year later, voters elected a liberal to replace a retiring conservative justice, ending 15 years of conservative control of the court.

Shortly after, the liberal group Priorities USA filed a lawsuit to reinstate ballot boxes. On Friday, the majority voted with the group.

State law requires ballots to be returned by mail or in person. Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, writing for the majority, said ballot drop boxes provide a way to deliver ballots in person because the drop boxes are maintained by election officials.

The majority had to overturn the 2022 decision because the analysis in that case was “not only wrong but also unfounded in principle,” she wrote.

Justice Rebecca Bradley, writing for the dissenters, said the court acted politically and should have adhered to the precedent set two years ago.

“When judges … give free rein to their preferences, every case ends up on the table because new judges come into office and undermine the rule of law with the whims of judges,” wrote Bradley, who is not related to Judge Ann Walsh Bradley.

Proponents of drop boxes applauded the ruling, saying it gives voters an easy way to return their ballots so they can be counted. Critics say the Legislature should decide whether they are allowed and, if so, create rules to ensure they are properly monitored and evenly distributed across the state.

“It’s a huge win for voters across Wisconsin,” said David Fox, who led the advocacy for Priorities USA. “It gives them the ability to use drop boxes to return ballots reliably, easily and securely.”

The ruling leaves it up to local officials to decide whether to use drop boxes. Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson, a Democrat, quickly announced that the city planned to make them available starting with the August primary. Other areas with large populations of Democratic voters are also expected to embrace the ruling.

The decision could pose political challenges for local leaders in Republican areas. Trump has frowned on absentee voting for years, but some of his allies have begun to encourage the practice. Brian Schimming, the chairman of the state Republican Party, condemned the ruling, even though he has championed early voting.

“In a setback for both the separation of powers and public confidence in our elections, the left-wing justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court have acceded to the demands of their out-of-state donors at the expense of Wisconsin,” Schimming said in a written statement.

Friday’s decision was a reminder of how judicial elections can quickly change the course of a state. Just months after conservatives won a majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court in 2022, they reversed recent liberal decisions by passing a voter ID law and restoring a Republican gerrymander.

In Wisconsin, control of the court will be up for debate in April after Ann Bradley won’t seek re-election. Before she leaves, the court is expected to rule on whether abortions can continue in the state.

The court this week agreed to review a trial judge’s decision that a 19th-century law does not prohibit most abortions. Separately, it accepted a case brought by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, asking it to declare that the state Constitution guarantees the right to abortion. A ruling in the group’s favor could affect a host of longstanding abortion restrictions, including the state’s 24-hour waiting period.

Meanwhile, a battle is brewing over a 2011 law that virtually abolished collective bargaining for most Wisconsin government workers. On Wednesday, a trial judge ruled that parts of the law violate the state constitution because it treats unions for police officers and firefighters differently than unions for most other government workers. That case is expected to go to the Supreme Court, but it is unclear whether that will happen before or after next year’s election for a seat on the court.

The labor law, known as Act 10, led to mass protests and an attempt to remove Governor Scott Walker (R) from office. Walker became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election and served two terms before losing his re-election bid in 2018.

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