MADISON, Wis. - A divided Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday denied a request from the state elections commission to keep absentee ballot drop boxes in place through the April 5 election for local offices.
That means that after Tuesday's primary, drop boxes located outside of local election clerks' offices will be illegal and no one other than the voter will be allowed to return an absentee ballot.
That was a lower court's ruling that the Supreme Court put on hold through the primary. On Friday, in a 4-3 ruling, it denied a request to extend the stay through the April 5 general election.
The court has yet to rule on the underlying case, which will determine the legality of absentee drop boxes going forward in the battleground state.
The fight is being closely watched as Republicans push to limit access to absentee ballots following President Joe Biden’s narrow win over Donald Trump in 2020. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson are on the ballot in November.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission asked the state's high court to extend its stay. Disability Rights Wisconsin, Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also asked for an extension.
But the court said the elections commission has enough time after Tuesday's primary to communicate with local election clerks that drop boxes can't be used in the April 5 election.
Justice Brian Hagedorn, a conservative who sometimes sides with liberal justices, again was the deciding vote in the 4-3 ruling. While he sided with liberals last month in granting the stay, on Friday he sided with conservatives.
"Once again, a majority of this court makes it more difficult to vote," Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote for the liberal minority. "With apparent disregard for the confusion it is causing, the majority provides next to no notice to municipal clerks, changing procedures at the eleventh hour and applying different procedures from those that applied to the primary in the very same election cycle."
State law is silent on drop boxes, but the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission has told local election officials they can be placed at multiple locations.
Wisconsin’s top elections official testified last year that at least 528 drop boxes were used by more than 430 communities in the presidential election.
The elections commission failed to reach a consensus last month on how to handle Republican lawmakers’ demands that they either withdraw that guidance or quickly publish formal rules that the Legislature could then block.
That has left the fight to be resolved in the courts.
The popularity of absentee voting exploded during the pandemic in 2020, with more than 40% of all voters casting mail ballots, a record high.