MADISON — Wisconsin’s conservative-controlled Supreme Court ruled Friday that absentee ballot drop boxes may be placed only in election offices, dealing critical defeats to Democrats in the battleground state.
The court did not address the question of whether anyone other than the voter can return his or her own ballot by mail. Election officials and others had argued that drop boxes are a secure and convenient way for voters to return ballots.
The decision sets absentee ballot rules for the Aug. 9 primary and the fall election; Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers are seeking reelection in key races.
WATCH: TMJ4's Stephanie Haines explains the developments:
The court’s 4-3 ruling also has critical implications in the 2024 presidential race, in which Wisconsin will again be among a handful of battleground states. President Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in 2020 by just under 21,000 votes, four years after Trump narrowly won the state by a similar margin.
The popularity of absentee voting exploded during the pandemic in 2020, with more than 40% of all voters casting mail ballots, a record high. At least 500 drop boxes were set up in more than 430 communities for the election that year, including more than a dozen each in Madison and Milwaukee — the state’s two most heavily Democratic cities.
After Trump lost the state, he and Republicans alleged that drop boxes facilitated cheating, even though they offered no evidence. Democrats, elections officials and some Republicans argued the boxes are secure.
The conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty sued in 2021. The state Supreme Court in February barred the use of drop boxes outside election clerk offices in the April election for local offices, such as mayor, city council and school board seats. The court ruled Friday on the question of whether to allow secure ballot boxes in places such as libraries and grocery stores.
State law is silent on drop boxes and the court said absentee ballots can be returned only to the clerk's office or a designated alternative site. The bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission had told local election officials the boxes can be placed at multiple locations and that ballots can be returned by people other than the voter, but put that on hold pending the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature have also tried to enact laws limiting the use of absentee ballots, but Evers has vetoed them.
Republicans have made similar moves since Trump’s defeat to tighten access to ballots in other battleground states. The restrictions especially target voting methods that have been rising in popularity, erecting hurdles to mail balloting and early voting that saw explosive growth during the pandemic.
"It's good to look back on why those ballot boxes were placed," said former executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission Neil Albrecht. "In some pretty densely populated urban municipalities like the city of Milwaukee and the city of Madison. And that is, with the emergence of the pandemic, there were real delays and failures in mail delivery."
According to the ruling, there were 570 reported drop boxes in 66 of the state's 72 counties by the spring of 2021. There were 15 in Milwaukee, most of which were at libraries.
TMJ4 reported the Milwaukee Election Commission said more than half of the city's absentee voters in 2020 used drop boxes instead of mail.
Rick Esenberg, the president of the conservative law firm, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, says the Supreme Court is sticking to the rules set in state statute.
"If we want drop boxes, we have got to go to the Legislature, and we've got to ask them," Esenberg said.
According to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, close to 60 percent of all ballots were absentee in the November 2020 election.
The Supreme Court wrote it is not deciding whether the voter must personally mail their absentee ballot themselves or if someone else can, such as a spouse or caretaker.
Barbara Beckert of Disability Rights Wisconsin says there still are federal protections.
"Our response would be that voters with disabilities with asking whoever they wish to mail their ballot as long as it's not their employer or union representative," Beckert said.
The ruling also states, "Reading the election statutes in context and as a whole, we conclude an absentee ballot delivered in person under Wis. Stat. § 6.87(4)(b)1. must be delivered personally by the voter."