Wisconsin top court's new liberal majority allows for ballot drop boxes

2020 U.S. presidential election in Wisconsin

By Nate Raymond

(Reuters) -A divided Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday cleared the way for voters to be able to return absentee ballots through drop boxes, with the court's new liberal majority overturning a decision from just two years ago that had outlawed the practice.

The court on a 4-3 vote sided with the progressive advocacy groups Priorities USA and the Wisconsin Alliance for Retired Americans in a lawsuit they filed three months after the April 2023 election of liberal Justice Janet Protasiewicz.

That judicial election, the most expensive in U.S. history, flipped the court to a 4-3 liberal majority after 15 years of conservative control, giving Democrats an advantage in legal battles over abortion, voting rights and electoral maps.

The ruling clears the way for municipal clerks to use ballot drop boxes during the state's Aug. 13 primaries and the Nov. 5 presidential election, in which Wisconsin has become a key battleground.

In 2016, Republican former President Donald Trump won the state by fewer than 25,000 votes out of 2.8 million cast, and in 2020, President Joe Biden, a Democrat, carried Wisconsin by fewer than 21,000 votes out of 3.2 million cast.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Democrats pushed voters to use drop boxes to cast ballots and have remained supportive of them. Republicans, by contrast, have sought to limit the use of absentee ballots after the 2020 election.

Under its prior conservative majority, the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2022 held that according to state law, ballots had to be returned to a clerk's office or another designated site, not an "inanimate object" such as an unstaffed box.

That holding was defended in court by the state's Republican-led legislature.

But Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, a liberal, said on Friday that the earlier decision misinterpreted a Wisconsin law that requires absentee voting be "carefully regulated" by concluding it required the court to take a "skeptical" view of the procedure.

"It is not up to this court to 'regulate' absentee voting," Bradley wrote in an opinion joined by the court's three other liberal justices including Protasiewicz.

All three conservative justices dissented, including Justice Rebecca Bradley, who accused the liberal majority of overturning the 2022 decision because they "believe using drop boxes is good policy, and one they hope will aid their preferred political party."

Democratic Governor Tony Evers, who filed a brief supporting the progressive groups pursuing the case, in a statement called the ruling a "victory for our democracy," saying that drop-box voting is "safe, secure, and legal."

Use of drop boxes will remain up to the discretion of local officials. But cities like Milwaukee and Madison are now expected to use them, said David Fox, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi, Alistair Bell and Matthew Lewis)