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Wisconsin Supreme Court Prohibits the Use of Most Drop Boxes

The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday prohibited the use of most drop boxes for voters to return absentee ballots, giving the state’s Republicans a major victory in their efforts to limit voting access in urban areas.

The 4-to-3 ruling by the court’s conservative majority will take effect for Wisconsin’s primary elections next month, though its true impact most likely will not be felt until the November general election. Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, and Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican, both face what are expected to be very close re-election bids.

The court adopted a literal interpretation of state law, finding that returning an absentee ballot to a municipal clerk, as Justice Rebecca G. Bradley wrote for the majority, “does not mean nor has it been historically understood to mean delivery to an unattended ballot drop box.”

While state law allows absentee ballots to be returned in the mail, Justice Bradley wrote, “ballot drop boxes, however, are not mailboxes.”

Municipal clerks who oversee Wisconsin’s elections used drop boxes for years without controversy before the 2020 election, when about 500 were in place across the state, typically outside public libraries and municipal buildings.

After the election, which President Donald J. Trump lost in Wisconsin to Joseph R. Biden Jr. by about 20,000 votes, Mr. Trump’s campaign and his supporters filed an array of lawsuits seeking to invalidate votes cast in drop boxes because the method of returning ballots was not explicitly permitted under state law.

In the opinion, Justice Bradley compared Wisconsin’s elections to contests rigged by dictators in Syria and North Korea and questioned whether past elections in the state had been legitimate.

“Thousands of votes have been cast via this unlawful method, thereby directly harming the Wisconsin voters,” she wrote. “The illegality of these drop boxes weakens the people’s faith that the election produced an outcome reflective of their will. The Wisconsin voters, and all lawful voters, are injured when the institution charged with administering Wisconsin elections does not follow the law, leaving the results in question.”

Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature are highly unlikely to enact legislation to permit drop boxes. Robin Vos, the powerful speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, said in September that drop boxes should be allowed inside a municipal clerk’s office only during regular working hours.

“Should we have drop boxes everywhere where somebody could just go in with no security?” he said in an interview at his office at the State Capitol in Madison. “I don’t think that’s right.”

Wisconsin Democrats, who have watched as the State Supreme Court and the State Legislature have steadily eroded the influence they and Mr. Evers have over the state’s voting rules, warned Friday that the state’s most vulnerable voters would not be able to participate in the state’s democracy.

“With its ruling today, the Wisconsin Supreme Court is making it more difficult to vote. It’s a slap in the face of democracy itself,” said Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. “Our freedom to vote is under attack.”

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