A judge in the key battleground state of Wisconsin ruled Thursday that ballot drop boxes and ballot harvesting violate state law and cannot be used in the upcoming midterm elections.
Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Michael Bohren determined “there is no statutory authority” to allow for either practice, which became highly controversial in Wisconsin following the state’s razor-thin outcome in the 2020 presidential election. President Joe Biden defeated former President Donald Trump in the state by approximately 20,000 votes.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission, which is under fire for allegedly bending and even openly violating state law to give Biden an edge, authorized the dramatic increase in the use of ballot drop boxes, but Judge Bohren held that the agency lacked lawful authority to do so.
The plaintiffs, voters represented by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), argued that state law allowed for only two methods of returning an absentee ballot: Through the mail or in person at the municipal clerk’s office. Nowhere does it allow for a ballot to be dropped off in a drop box.
Likewise, Wisconsin law provides that no person “may receive a ballot from or give a ballot to a person other than the election official in charge.” This, the plaintiffs argued, is a clear prohibition on ballot harvesting, the practice of third parties collecting absentee ballots from voters.
Despite this, the Wisconsin Elections Commission sent a memo to municipal clerks ahead of the 2020 election indicating that “a family member or another person may also return the ballot on behalf of the voter” and that ballots could be returned in drop boxes instead of in person at the clerk’s office.
Neither of these, Bohren ruled Thursday, were lawful orders. Still, clerks set up more than 500 ballot drop boxes across the state, which were used to collect tens of thousands of absentee ballots. The ruling, which will almost certainly be appealed, prohibits the use of drop boxes in upcoming elections.
Wisconsin’s current U.S. Senate race is among the most hotly contested in the country, as control of the Senate may depend upon its result. Last week, incumbent Republican Ron Johnson announced he would run for a third term. Several Democrats, including Lt. Gov Mandela Barnes and Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, have launched bids to unseat Johnson.
The state will also have a fiercely fought gubernatorial election, as former Republican Lt. Gov Rebecca Kleefisch is challenging Democrat incumbent Tony Evers. Last fall, Kleefisch filed a lawsuit against the Wisconsin Elections Commission in an effort to force it to follow state law during the 2022 election cycle.
Her suit, seeking direct action from the Wisconsin Supreme Court, also alleged the use of ballot drop boxes violated state law, a position confirmed by a report by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau. That agency determined in October that the Wisconsin Elections Commission did not comply with numerous laws in the way it administered the 2020 election.
Among the Audit Bureau’s findings were that the Wisconsin Elections Commission did not perform legally required checks of the multistate voter database to identify potential double voting, that tens of thousands of voters were able to skirt Wisconsin’s Voter ID law by falsely claiming to be indefinitely confined to their homes, and that voting in all of the state’s nursing homes was unlawfully conducted.
In addition, the Wisconsin legislature has launched a special counsel investigation into the election, which has focused primarily on the manner in which outside money from groups funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was used to unlawfully influence (and, in the city of Green Bay, possibly even take over) the administration of the presidential election.
Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, the special counsel, has faced significant stonewalling from the Wisconsin Elections Commission and local election officials in Green Bay as well as the Democrat-controlled cities of Milwaukee, Madison, and Green Bay. In response, he has filed numerous subpoenas compelling those officials to sit for interviews with his investigators.
The investigation, which began last summer, is expected to conclude in the coming weeks. Gableman has not given any public indication of his timeline, but Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who hired Gableman, has said he wants it to conclude by the end of February.