A Judge Just Tried to Make It Harder to Vote in This Swing State

A Wisconsin judge ruled that drop boxes can’t be used for absentee ballots, making it harder for voters.
January 14, 2022, 4:09pm
Residents drop mail-in ballots in an official ballot box outside of the Tippecanoe branch library on October 20, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Residents drop mail-in ballots in an official ballot box outside of the Tippecanoe branch library on October 20, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Olson / Getty Images)

A county judge ruled that voting drop boxes can’t be used anymore in Wisconsin, potentially undercutting a key tool of absentee voting and giving Republicans a win in their battle to make it harder to vote in the swing state.

Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Michael Bohren ruled Thursday afternoon that since Wisconsin law doesn’t explicitly allow drop boxes for voting, counties could no longer use them to make it easy for voters to return absentee ballots.

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"It's all good and nice, but there's no authority to do it," Bohren said, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

That’s a reversal of longstanding policy in the state to allow counties to use drop boxes for mail voting. And it comes as part of a concerted push by Republicans to eliminate drop boxes in Wisconsin, a key part of their attempts to make voting harder in a crucial battleground state that President Biden narrowly won in 2020.

Wisconsin law is silent on whether drop boxes are allowed, but the state’s election commission has long said they’re permitted, and counties have used drop boxes for years without any controversy. But their use expanded significantly—and became a partisan flashpoint—in 2020 as the state sought to make it safer to vote during the COVID pandemic and as Republicans, led by former President Trump, turned early and absentee voting into a partisan issue with lies about voting fraud.

Bohren said he would issue an injunction in the coming days to ban the use of drop boxes that would take place immediately ahead of this year’s elections.

There were more than 500 drop boxes around the state for voters in the 2020 presidential election, according to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Those drop boxes gave voters the way to return absentee ballots without having to risk COVID exposure from voting in person or take a chance that their ballots would be lost in the mail. 

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Bohren also ruled that people must personally submit their ballots, banning people from letting their spouses, family or friends from returning ballots for them, even to drop them off in mail boxes. That’s a real hurdle for some elderly and disabled people with limited mobility.

Bohren’s ruling came in response to a lawsuit from the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty against the bipartisan Wisconsin state election commission, which has allowed counties to use drop boxes. Former Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, the heavy favorite to be the GOP’s gubernatorial nominee this year, has filed a similar challenge that awaits action by the state supreme court.

Republicans are also pursuing a partisan investigation into whether Wisconsin’s 2020 election had serious voting fraud, even though there’s been zero evidence of widespread voting fraud in the state.

This ruling is the first major potential win for Republicans as they seek to make it harder to vote in the state. Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has been able to veto Republican state lawmakers’ efforts to block voting changes. But if Evers loses to Kleefisch or another Republican this fall, Republicans will have unified control of the state and have signaled they’ll seek to make more dramatic voting changes before the 2024 elections.

Bohren’s ruling will almost certainly be appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which has a 4-3 GOP majority and has generally sided with conservatives. Even if they rule to overturn this ruling, the GOP-controlled Wisconsin Legislature is also seeking to eliminate drop boxes and make other changes that would make it harder to vote in the key swing state.

The ruling not only makes it potentially harder to vote absentee in Wisconsin—it also could make voting less secure. Wisconsin ballot drop boxes are built to be tamper-proof and are usually under 24-hour camera surveillance and located in secure government buildings like libraries and firehouses, making them significantly more secure than mail boxes, which aren’t monitored in the same way and are scattered across the state.