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360: Ballot drop boxes face an uncertain future in Wisconsin

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Posted at 4:15 PM, Feb 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-14 19:24:25-05

MILWAUKEE — After the spring primary election this Tuesday, the future of absentee ballot drop boxes remains uncertain in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Friday that ballot drop boxes will not be allowed for the upcoming April election as it prepares to make its final decision on the matter.

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The city of Milwaukee has had 15 ballot drop boxes in every election for the past two years to make it more convenient for absentee voters to submit their ballots, but after February 15, they will have to be removed.

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Before 2020, ballot drop boxes were sparsely used in Wisconsin elections, but that all changed when the pandemic hit. To address a massive surge in absentee-by-mail votes, the state’s elections commission issued guidance to municipalities saying local election officials could place them wherever they’d like. The state Supreme Court decided to ban ballot drop boxes for the next election on April 5, but after that remains unknown.

Let’s go 360° to hear from the conservative group that filed the lawsuit to have ballot drop boxes removed in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Election Commission about the security of ballots, and a disability rights group shares another issue at hand that could disenfranchise voters. But we start with two Milwaukee voters who are at odds over whether drop boxes should be allowed.

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“It’s so much easier, why deny the vote to people?” said Steve O’Connell.

O’Connell says he prefers voting absentee to avoid potential coronavirus exposure at the polls and he likes using drop boxes instead of putting his ballot in the mail.

“My concern is the length of time it takes from that mailbox, your mailbox at home to Oak Creek back downtown,” he said. “Come on, it’s right here. It’s as simple as that.”

“I would definitely not use a ballot drop box,” said Darlene Dyson.

Dyson says she only votes in-person on Election Day.

“It makes me feel more safe because I know I can actually see me casting my vote,” she said.

The conservative group, Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, filed a lawsuit to have ballot drop boxes banned for future elections. W.I.L.L. President Rick Esenberg says their fight is all about the rule of law.

“The law does not provide for drop boxes, it says there are two ways to return an absentee ballot, you can either give it to the clerk in person or you can put it into the United States mail,” Esenberg said.

In the 2020 presidential election, more Wisconsinites voted absentee by mail than in-person on Election Day.

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Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Claire Woodall-Vogg says more than half of the city’s absentee voters used drop boxes to return their ballot instead of sending them through the mail.

“Because of how quickly we process them, and they can check online and have that peace of mind that their votes been received. It's not going to get destroyed in a machine, lost by a mail carrier and it's extremely secure. We have 24 hour video surveillance, security seals, lots of checks and balances that a post office box doesn't have,” she said.

The state Supreme Court will not only decide the future of ballot drop boxes, but also whether voters can have someone else return their absentee ballots for them. Disability Rights Wisconsin says 26 percent of adults have a disability. Barbara Beckert says thousands who live in community-based care need that assistance in order to have their votes counted.

“That is the need that we hear about the most and that is in every municipality in Wisconsin, there are people who are voting absentee and need help from someone else to return that absentee ballot and often, that might be a paid caregiver,” Beckert said.

For now, local election officials will have to proceed without ballot drop boxes for the April election. A final decision on the legality of drop boxes in Wisconsin is expected to come before the fall elections which include the governor and senate seat races.

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