Ballot boxes return to Wisconsin after Supreme Court ruling

Liberals on the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday cleared the way for absentee ballot drop boxes, changing voting rules four months before the presidential election and reversing a decision made two years ago by conservatives when they held the court’s majority.

The 4-3 ruling came a year after liberals won a majority on the high court in a crucial swing state and six months after they overturned a gerrymander that had long given Republicans a huge majority in state legislatures. The prospect of other major decisions was clear this week as the justices agreed to hear two landmark abortion cases and an appeal appeared headed their way that would determine whether to overturn parts of a law that has crippled union powers for government workers for more than a decade.

Ballot drop boxes were available in some Wisconsin communities for years, and their use was greatly expanded for the 2020 presidential election, when voters turned to mail-in voting because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Top Wisconsin Republicans supported them at the time, but turned against them after Joe Biden narrowly defeated Donald Trump in the state.

Four months before the 2022 midterm elections, conservatives then in control of the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of a group of voters who argued that ballot drop boxes could not be used because state law did not specifically authorize them. A year later, voters elected a liberal to replace a retiring conservative justice, ending 15 years of conservative control of the court.

Shortly after, the liberal group Priorities USA filed a lawsuit to reinstate ballot drop boxes, and a trial judge dismissed their claim because of the state Supreme Court’s 2022 decision. On Friday, the justices overturned the 2022 decision on ballot drop boxes and sent Priorities USA’s case back to the trial judge for further proceedings.

Supporters say drop boxes offer voters a safe, convenient way to return their ballots so they can be counted. Opponents say the Legislature should decide whether they are allowed and, if so, create rules to ensure they are properly monitored and evenly distributed across the state.

Friday’s decision was a reminder of how judicial elections can quickly change the course of a state. Just months after conservatives won a majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court in 2022, they reversed recent liberal decisions by passing a voter ID law and restoring a Republican gerrymander.

In Wisconsin, control of the court will be up for debate in April after a liberal justice won’t seek re-election. Before she leaves, the court is expected to rule on whether abortions can continue in the state.

The court this week agreed to review a trial judge’s decision that a 19th-century law does not prohibit most abortions. Separately, it accepted a case brought by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, asking it to declare that the state Constitution guarantees the right to abortion. A ruling in the group’s favor could affect a host of longstanding abortion restrictions, including the state’s 24-hour waiting period.

Meanwhile, a battle is brewing over a 2011 law that virtually abolished collective bargaining for most Wisconsin government workers. On Wednesday, a trial judge ruled that parts of the law violate the state constitution because it treats unions for police officers and firefighters differently than unions for most other government workers. That case is expected to go to the Supreme Court, but it is unclear whether that will happen before or after next year’s election for a seat on the court.

The labor law, known as Act 10, led to mass protests and an attempt to remove Governor Scott Walker (R) from office. Walker became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election and served two terms before losing his re-election bid in 2018.

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