A decision in Waukesha County will potentially have long-term consequences for voters in Superior.  A form of voting that became relatively accepted during the COVID-19 pandemic might be going away - as soon as the upcoming mid-term elections.

In larger numbers than ever before, many voters in Superior obtained absentee ballots to cast their votes during the pandemic and shut downs.  Those absentee ballots were always available - but the methods used to collect them after being filled out has come under scrutiny.

Many people who obtained absentee ballots in Superior used the drop boxes that were established in the circle driveway that exists on the north end of City Hall - behind the building.  Those unmanned boxes allowed people to drive up, drop the ballot off, and quickly leave - without having to encounter a single person.  They were open 24 hours a day, seven days a week - in the days leading up to each of the elections held during the pandemic.

City of Superior, WI sign
Nick Cooper - TSM Duluth

A ruling that came down on January 13 from Circuit Court Judge Michael Bohren suggests that those ballot drop boxes are "not allowed under Wisconsin law".  According to an article in the Superior Telegram [paywall], the judge "ordered the Wisconsin Elections Commission to rescind its guidance to clerks on how to use the drop boxes, saying the WEC had exceeded its authority when it issued the recommendations". His ruling came because he determined that (i)n looking at the statutes, there is no specific authorization for drop boxes".

The ruling comes after much debate about the legalities of how absentee balloting occurred in the state (and around the country) in the last few election cycles.  In the past, absentee ballots needed to be returned in person to the election clerks office or sent their via U.S. Mail.  Critics of the drop boxes suggest that both of those options provide a means of oversight that tamps down the potential for voter fraud.

Man with face mask putting his vote into ballot box on table outside.

As early as March 2020, the Wisconsin Election Commission issued guidance that allowed for unmanned drop boxes to be used as a means of collecting absentee ballots.   As the pandemic rolled along, the commission issued further memos that suggested the boxes as an option.

Judge Bohren took issue with the memos, saying that the election commission had no authority to make that direction.  He called the memos "a major policy decision that alter(s) how our absentee ballot process operates". Consequently, it "should have been viewed as an administrative rule, which would require the Legislature's approval".

The ruling on January 13 gives the Wisconsin Elections Commission a deadline to "rescind its drop box guidance to clerks".  That deadline is January 27.

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