Residents drop mail-in ballots in an official ballot drop box outside of the Tippecanoe branch library in Milwaukee in October 2020. (Scott Olson | Getty Images)
At municipal drop boxes across Wisconsin, municipal clerks have placed large and often brightly colored signs nearby to make sure the boxes — used for delivering utilities payments, taxes and, until recently, absentee ballots — aren’t used in this spring’s local elections.
The use of drop boxes, which has been common in the state for years, was banned in January after a judge in Waukesha County sided with the right-wing lawyers for two voters who sought to end the practice. An appeals court allowed their use in the February primary, but they aren’t allowed for the April 5 election as the state Supreme Court weighs a final decision.
In an audit last year into the 2020 presidential election, the Legislative Audit Bureau surveyed municipal clerks and found that 245 of the 855 clerks who responded used drop boxes in 2020. The drop boxes were used in every region of the state, and many had been in place long before any pandemic-induced changes in voting behavior.
The lawsuit has also prohibited people from returning other people’s ballots, a change that advocates for voters with disabilities say is harmful to their ability to cast a ballot.
Barbara Beckert, director of Disability Rights Wisconsin’s (DRW) Milwaukee office, says the organization has had a number of calls from people worried that they won’t be able to vote on April 5.
“The court ruling prohibits people from getting assistance mailing or returning their ballot, so it’s quite extreme,” Beckert says. “I’m hearing from a number of voters who are shocked and disheartened by this and unsure how they’re going to be able to vote unless they break the law.”
Beckert describes an elderly resident of northern Wisconsin with a mailbox a half mile away from his front door. Unable to walk that far and no longer able to rely on assistance from others, he won’t be able to vote. Another woman, with multiple sclerosis, is mostly unable to leave her bed and in the past has relied on her husband to return her ballot. Now that can’t happen.
“She has limited use of one hand, but other than that she isn’t able to control her body any longer,” Beckert says. “She’s a very bright woman, a passionate voter, but she’s not able to put her own ballot in her own mailbox. Her husband has always assisted her with this. She’s facing some anxiety over how she’s going to be able to cast a ballot.”
Beckert says that DRW believes federal law requires voters with disabilities to be accommodated.
“We believe under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 208 under the Voting Rights Act, these rights are protected,” she says.
But some local city attorneys have told clerks they can’t provide any accommodations so as to not run afoul of the January court ruling.
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Republicans have alleged, without evidence, that both drop boxes and the returning of someone else’s ballot are vulnerable to fraud. Both issues are frequently brought up by Republicans who falsely claim the 2020 election was stolen. Last week, members of a national group that alleges widespread fraud in the 2020 election told a legislative committee that by using cell phone location data, they could prove thousands of examples of “ballot trafficking.”
Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell says the municipal clerks in the area have taken a number of steps to make sure voters don’t use drop boxes that remain in place or municipal slots that are used for a variety of purposes.
The court decision that ended their use states that the only ways to legally return an absentee ballot are through the mail or in-person and handed directly to a clerk or member of their staff.
“It’s a difficult situation. A lot of them have locked their drop boxes, removed them or put a lot of signage on it because they’re using it for other purposes,” McDonell says. “I’ve seen a lot of different ways to prevent voters from using the drop box.”
He adds that the change has caused confusion among voters who are used to returning ballots for family members.
“They’re working overtime to deliver that message that they need to use the mailbox or deliver it by hand to the clerk,” he says. “There’s been some mailings. When they come in to drop it off by hand, it’ll be couples and one of them will have two ballots, their’s and their spouse’s, and clerks have had to turn them away.”
Beckert says voters with questions should contact their municipal clerk or call DRW’s voter hotline at 844-347-8683.
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