Earlier today, to let absentee ballot dropboxes be used for the upcoming primary election. But the decision is not permanent – it’s a temporary allowance made by the courts to accommodate the rapidly approaching primary in just over three weeks.
And it’s a reversal from a ruling late last week, when a Waukesha county judge declined to issue the same type of decision – a stay on a recent ruling that would bar the use of absentee drop boxes.
The legal back and forth is all a part of an ongoing case brought forward by the conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. Today’s ruling from the Wisconsin Court of Appeals does not throw out the case entirely, but allows the use of absentee ballot dropboxes until February 15, the date of the spring primary.
The appeal to temporarily keep the dropboxes was filed last Friday by nonprofit law firm Law Forward and Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul on behalf of the state’s elections agency. They appealed the entire original ruling – including the block on all future use of absentee dropboxes. .
Disability Rights Wisconsin is a nonprofit group that advocates for the rights of disabled people in Wisconsin that is currently being represented by Law Forward. Barbara Becket is the Director of the Disabilities Rights Wisconsin Milwaukee Office, and says that the last minute change to election laws would have caused confusion.
“We’re extremely concerned about the timing. The election, an extremely important election that impacts local offices across our state, is less than a month away, and yet again we see because of barriers to voting rights that there is confusion and potentially chaos. People are unsure on how to give guidance, and that includes the 1,800 municipal clerks in Wisconsin who work so hard. What are they supposed to put in the guidance they are supposed to put into voting, and absentee ballots that they are mailing right now, in fact may already be in the mail when there are these continuing challenges,” says Becket.
Law Forward is also representing the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, a nonpartisan political advocacy group, and Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, a religious based advocacy group.
Scott Thompson is part of the staff council at Law Forward. He says letting the original ruling stand would also disenfranchise people who are disabled.
“Since at least the mid-50s, Wisconsin has acknowledged that people on occasion help each other return their absentee ballots. We call this ballot assistance. It occurs, for example, if I were to place my friend’s absentee ballot in the mailbox, and it would occur if someone were to bring someone else’s absentee ballot back to the municipal clerk. The ruling under the Circuit Court prohibits this conduct all together, essentially forbidding anyone from returning someone else’s ballot on their behalf,” says Thompson.
According to Thompson, there are around 80,000 people in Wisconsin who require nursing home level care within their homes. Under the ruling, disabled folks would not even be able to hand the ballot to somebody else to place in a mailbox.
Thompson says that one of the reasons for the appeal of Friday’s ruling was a last minute change to the conditions of the Circuit Judge’s ruling.
“On Friday there was a hearing in the Circuit Court concerning a motion for a stay that we filed there, essentially asking the Circuit Court in Waukesha County to put a stay on its own ruling through the spring elections. In that hearing, the court denied that motion, and in something of a surprise on its own, moved up the deadline for compliance with its order from what was originally January 27th, to January 24th,” says Thompson.
Thompson says the reasoning behind the court’s decision to move up the compliance date was to make the Wisconsin Elections Commission move as quickly as possible so that people would not cast their ballot in a way the court deemed illegal.
But the Court of Appeals says that not enough time was given in order to comply with the demands placed upon the Elections Commission. According to the order, 8,398 ballots have already been sent out by municipal clerks across the state.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty told WORT in an email that, quote, “We are confident that the circuit court’s ruling will ultimately be upheld and will evaluate our options,” end quote.
Today’s decision is a temporary one. The case is still before the Court of Appeals, which has not indicated whether or not it will hear the entire case.
There are fifteen dropboxes across Madison, most of which are housed at fire stations across the city. But that’s a moot point if the ruling remains after the spring primary, since there’s no spring primary in the city of Madison.
Photo courtesy: Chali Pittman / WORT Flickr