MADISON — Stung by the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling banning unmanned absentee ballot drop boxes, Democrats on the six-member Wisconsin Elections Commission balked this week on giving direction to the state’s approximately 1,850 clerks on how to proceed.
The commission split 3-3 on Republican-member motions on guidance to local election officials in interpreting the court’s ruling.
But when it comes to the main thrust of the 4-3 decision, the only interpretation that should be on the table is: follow the law.
The drop boxes, widely used in Wisconsin’s contentious 2020 presidential election, raised questions and concerns about the integrity of a flood of mail-in and dropped-off ballots amid a pandemic. They also were clearly a violation of state law, according to the majority opinion written by Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley.
“Only the legislature may permit absentee voting via ballot drop boxes. WEC (Wisconsin Election Commission) cannot,” she wrote. “Ballot drop boxes appear nowhere in the detailed statutory system for absentee voting. WEC’s authorization of ballot drop boxes was unlawful…”
Bob Spindell, one of three Republicans on the Elections Commission, tells Wisconsin Spotlight the Democrat-appointed members are still reeling from a ruling they despise.
“You have some very disappointed Democrats in the decision. What they’re trying to do is try and say the law that is on the books is still open to interpretation, or that unmanned drop boxes are okay and ballot harvesting is okay even though the law says differently,” said Spindell, whose motion requiring voters present photo ID when returning an absentee ballot died in the 3-3 stand-off. Proposed guidance that would include quoting state law that an elector must mail in his own ballot also died for lack of support from the three Dem commissioners.
The Supreme Court ruling didn’t take up the ballot harvesting issue, but a circuit court earlier ruled that state law is clear, that ballots must “be mailed by the elector.”
The legal battle began after WEC, as it has often done, pushed aside the law in offering guidance to local election clerks.
“A drop box is a secure, locked structure operated by local election officials. Voters may deposit their ballot in a drop box at any time after they receive it in the mail up to the time of the last ballot collection Election Day. Ballot drop boxes can be staffed or unstaffed, temporary or permanent,” the commission wrote in 2020.
The security of the unstaffed boxes have long been in doubt, particularly so after the release of video catching individuals stuffing some absentee ballot boxes in Democrat bastions like Milwaukee.
WEC also advised election officials that “[a] family member or another person may . . . return the ballot on behalf of the voter,” (i.e., an agent of the voter may place the voter’s absentee ballot in a drop box.).
The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, representing two Wisconsin voters, took WEC to court. They won at the circuit level. WEC took the case to an appeals court, but the Supreme Court agreed to intervene, bypassing the lower court.
Interestingly, Democrat-appointed Commissioner Mark Thomsen said proposed guidance by WEC staff would be “inappropriate” for the commission to “start making stuff up and I think that’s what this memo does, unfortunately,”
Commission Republicans warn that failing to clarify to election clerks what they need to do to follow the Supreme Court ruling would leave a confusing mess for next month’s statewide primary elections.
“It leaves a level of confusion and chaos, which leads to who knows what?” Spindell said, adding that the Democrat members are doing so by design.
“They want to keep things on the level of chaos and they don’t like the court’s decision,” he said. “They’re going to do what’s best for the Democratic Party to try to keep things as much as possible.”