The Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) reportedly gave Wisconsin clerks bad advice when, in March and August of 2020, it encouraged the use of unstaffed, unsupervised, temporary absentee ballot drop boxes.
In a summary judgment issued in court on Thursday, Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Michael Bohren ruled that both the drop boxes and ballot harvesting are not permitted in state law, WISN reported.
The lawsuit, filed in June 2021 by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) on behalf of two Waukesha County voters challenged the legal status of absentee ballot drop boxes used in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The guidance from the Wisconsin Elections Commission on absentee ballot drop boxes was unlawful,” stated WILL Deputy Counsel, Luke Berg, following Thursday’s ruling. “There are just two legal methods to cast an absentee ballot in Wisconsin: through the mail or in-person at a clerk’s office. And voters must return their own ballots. We are pleased the court made this clear, providing Wisconsin voters with certainty for forthcoming elections.”
In addition to clarifying existing state election laws, Judge Bohren stated that the WEC should have gone through the rules process prior to issuing its guidance. While appeals are likely, if it stands, the ruling will bar the use of the ballot drop boxes and ban ballot harvesting in the state’s spring primaries, held in mid-February.
Bohren’s ruling comes on the heels of WILL’s December release of a ten-month, in-depth study of Wisconsin’s 2020 elections, in which the Institute found that the “…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.”
This is significant, as only 20,682 votes separated Biden and Trump in the highly contested state.
The report went on to raise concerns over what it characterized as “substantially lower” absentee ballot rejection rates, stating, “Due to the partisan split in absentee voting, WILL estimates that if absentee ballot rejection rates were similar to the rates in 2016, the final election margin would have narrowed by 6,000 votes—making a very close election even closer.”
Despite these findings, the Wisconsin Elections Commission continued to claim any concern over the handling of absentee ballots is unfounded.
“The commission’s guidance claims clerks should ensure drop boxes are secure, can be monitored and be regularly emptied,” argued Wisconsin Department of Justice Assistant Attorney General Steven Kilpatrick on Thursday, according to WISN.
In what is widely viewed as a Republican victory for the integrity of future Wisconsin elections, it was, in the end, Berg who made the more compelling case: “All the other examples we’re talking about—a drop box in a park, on a street corner, at a library, even outside the clerk’s office overnight—all of that conflicts with multiple state laws.”
As Democrats struggle under dismal approval ratings, it remains to be seen how this latest ruling will impact campaign strategies in the Badger State, heading into what is certain to be a statewide, yearlong battle for every legal vote.
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