SCOWIS raises questions over drop boxes, returning absentee ballots

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- The Wisconsin Supreme Court weighed the future of drop boxes in the battleground state and whether voters can return someone else's ballot.

For nearly two hours, the state's high court raised a series of hypothetical questions trying to gauge how attorneys interpret the law when someone hands in their absentee ballot.

The debate comes after a lower court ruled only the voter can return their ballot by mail or in person and the municipal clerk's office. It was a decision that left many voters confused during the April 5 election, especially for voters with disabilities who rely on others to turn in their absentee ballot.

During oral arguments, conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn asked whether anyone other than the voter can drop off an absentee ballot.

"If I'm mailing an absentee ballot and my wife takes the three steps to put it in the mailbox rather than me, have I violated the law? Do we need to decide that question?" Hagedorn asked.

"I think you do," Rick Esenburg, president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, replied.

Liberal justice Jill Karofsky asked a similar question to Esenburg, whether a voter could fill out their absentee ballot, seal it, write in the return address and then have a child put in the mailbox.

"Within the meaning of the statute, no, because you’ve given the ballot to somebody else,” said Esenberg.

"Mr. Esenburg, I'm sure you can appreciate how absurd that result is," Karofsky replied.

Questions also surfaced whether drop boxes can be placed beyond the one located at the clerk's office.

Wisconsin state law is silent on drop boxes, which became a popular option for voters during the pandemic. Clerks encouraged the use of them after the Wisconsin Elections Commission suggested they be placed throughout the state, but never created rules about who can and can't put ballots in them.

Many paid close attention to Justice Hagedorn's questioning to try and gauge how the court might rule. Hagedorn sided with liberal justices, 4-3, to allow absentee drop boxes to be used in the February primary because absentee voting was already underway.

Hagedorn then rejoined right-leaning justices when the court rejected a request to extend the order, ultimately nixing drop boxes for the April 5 election.

After oral arguments, Disability Rights Wisconsin held a virtual event talking about how difficult it will continue to be for people with disabilities to vote if the ruling is upheld. Many rely on caregivers, family members or friends to return their ballots.

Martha Chamber, who is paralyzed from the neck down, said she had no choice but to ask a family member to place her ballot in the mailbox for the April 5 election.

"This barrier would make it impossible for me to vote," Chamber said. " I physically cannot put my ballot in the mailbox."

Chamber listened to oral arguments and said she was "speechless" that some attorneys implied everyone can find a way to put their ballot in the mail.

"I couldn't believe it…how do they not know there are people out in the world that don't have that option?"

The high court is expected to make a decision this spring or summer.

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