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Wisconsin elections officials to discuss absentee ballot drop box rules after ruling

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin elections officials will meet this week to discuss how to implement a state Supreme Court ruling that once again allowed for unstaffed absentee ballot drop boxes to be used in the presidential battleground, the state elections administrator said Tuesday.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission will discuss on Thursday what type of guidance to give the more than 1,800 local officials who actually run elections, administrator Meagan Wolfe said during a panel discussion on election integrity in Milwaukee.

The commission must act quickly with the state’s Aug. 13 primary just five weeks away. The drop boxes will also be in use for the presidential election on Nov. 5.

Four the past six presidential elections, including the past two, have been decided by less than a percentage point in Wisconsin, heightening interest in the state’s voting rules.

The commission won’t be able to simply repeat its earlier guidance that had been in place before the drop boxes were barred by the state Supreme Court in 2022, Wolfe said.

“Things have changed in the last couple of years,” Wolfe said without elaborating.

Drop boxes had been used for years in Wisconsin, but their popularity exploded in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 40% of Wisconsin voters casting mail ballots, a record high. More than 500 drop boxes were set up in more than 430 communities for the election that year, including more than a dozen each in Madison and Milwaukee, the state’s two most heavily Democratic cities.

President Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in Wisconsin by just under 21,000 votes in 2020, four years after Trump narrowly took the state by a similar margin.

Since his defeat, Trump and Republicans have alleged that drop boxes facilitated cheating, even though they offered no evidence. Democrats, election officials and some Republicans argued the boxes are secure. An Associated Press survey of state election officials across the U.S. revealed no cases of fraud, vandalism or theft that could have affected the results in 2020.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2022, then-controlled by conservatives, ruled in favor of a conservative law firm that challenged the drop boxes. The court ruled that drop boxes can only be located at offices staffed by election clerks, not at remote, unstaffed locations.

Liberals brought a new challenge after the Wisconsin Supreme Court flipped to liberal control last year.

Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, writing for the court’s liberal majority last week, said that local clerks have great discretion in how they administer elections and that extends to using and locating drop boxes.

Wolfe said Tuesday that part of what the commission will discuss is what are the best practices for the use of unstaffed drop boxes, including security.

Kathy Bernier, a former Republican state senator who now leads the Keep Our Republic group that’s trying to restore faith in elections, encouraged the commission to enact an emergency rule giving clear guidelines to the clerks. The commission, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, could take other steps that wouldn’t carry the weight of law like a rule does.

Drop boxes were used in 39 other states during the 2022 election, according to the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project.

Associated Press