Last-minute rule change before February and April elections could lead to confusion and hurt elderly and disabled voters, officials say.
Wisconsin’s election clerks say a judge’s decision Thursday to ban all absentee ballot drop boxes, except those located in clerks’ offices, couldn’t have come at a worse time as the state prepares for a Feb. 15 spring primary.
Communities across the state deployed about 500 secure drop boxes during the 2020 election as concerns spread about COVID-19 exposure and slowed mail service. But Republicans have tried to restrict their use as part of their push to sow doubt about the 2020 election and make it harder to vote absentee.
Sara Bruckman, president of Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association and the Fox Point village clerk, expressed concern regarding the ruling and the impact it will have on voters and clerks, especially in larger municipalities.
“To have such a change right before an election, 30 days out from an election, just creates more distrust in any voter, in any party, because the rules are constantly changing,“ Bruckman said, referencing the Feb. 15 primary in Wisconsin.
Although Fox Point only has one ballot drop box, it, like those located in many municipalities, is located outside the clerk’s office, on the grounds of the village’s municipal hall. Thursday’s ruling was unclear as to whether such drop boxes will still be permitted, or if the drop boxes must be located inside a clerk’s office.
“For as long as I have been in this line of work, we have utilized drop boxes and we have never had a concern. It’s never been tampered with. It’s always been a reliable [tool]. And so, I just think it’s really doing a disservice to the voters, more than it is almost to the clerks,” Bruckman added.
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For Wausau’s new City Clerk Kaitlyn Bernarde, educating voters about the change is the most pressing concern.
“With the decision, there can be a lot of confusion as well as potential frustration if they show up to drop [off their ballot in the drop box] and it’s outside of City Hall’s normal operating hours,” said Bernarde, noting the city has two aldermanic primaries slated for next month.
With surging COVID-19 cases, Bernarde said her office expects to receive even more absentee ballot requests for both the April local election and the November general election, which could again cause confusion for voters who are now accustomed to being able to rely on the drop box outside their City Hall.
For Dane County Clerk Scott McDonnell, the drop box decision seems to simply be part of a national, conservative agenda to make voting by absentee ballot more difficult.
“I think [as] clerks[our] reaction to this is just shaking our heads. I mean, there are no problems with drop boxes. Voters like them all over the state,” McDonnell said. “And you know who that really hurts? Seniors [and] people with disabilities, because other folks will find another way. We’ve been yo-yo’d back and forth on all kinds of election rules last few years. So [I’m] kind of used to it at this point. I get sick of it, because it’s hard on voters.”
In the City of Eau Claire, where 7,958 of roughly 37,000 total votes were cast via a ballot box in the November 2020 election, city clerk election staffers are studying how the decision to do away with drop boxes will impact voting. Four drop boxes, including one outside of City Hall, were available to voters in the city during the last election. Those drop boxes offered voters a secure, convenient voting option, City Clerk Carrie Riepl had said.
“It was a pretty popular option,” the city’s deputy clerk, Nicholas Koerner, said Friday. “Quite a few people used it.”
In justifying his ruling, Waukesha County Circuit Judge Michael Bohren stated that the Wisconsin Elections Commission had no legal authority to issue guidance allowing drop boxes at locations other than clerk’s offices. Appointed to the bench in 2000 by then-Gov. Tommy Thompson, Bohren has run unopposed for his seat in every election since.
The decision banning most drop boxes will almost certainly be appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court and comes 10 months before Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson are up for reelection in key races targeted by both Republicans and Democrats.
In addition to causing confusion for voters, the decision shows the need for federal voting rights protections, voting rights activists said.
“We emphatically disagree with yesterday’s ruling. If anything, the ruling demonstrates the urgent need for federal legislation to protect basic voting rights,” wrote Scott Thompson, staff counsel with progressive litigation firm Law Forward. “Our immediate concern is the impact that the ruling will have on the February elections. To avoid significant voter confusion and even disenfranchisement, we believe a stay of this ruling should be issued.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.