Wisconsin Supreme Court Says Ballot Drop Boxes Can Again Be Used

The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s new liberal majority said on Friday that ballot drop boxes can once again be used widely in the state, reversing a ruling issued two years ago when the court had a conservative majority.

On a practical level, the ruling changes how Wisconsin, a closely divided state that could tip the Electoral College, will carry out an election that is just four months away. On a symbolic level, the judicial whiplash is likely to fuel Republican claims that the court has become a nakedly partisan force — claims that Democrats made themselves not long ago, when most of the justices were conservatives.

Drop boxes were used in Wisconsin for years as one of several ways, along with early in-person and mail-in voting, for voters to submit ballots before Election Day. The widespread use of drop boxes in 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, drew the ire of Republicans and prompted a lawsuit that the court’s previous majority decided by mostly banning their use.

The ruling on Friday is part of a broader push by Democrats and progressive groups to have the Wisconsin Supreme Court weigh in on some of the state’s thorniest policy issues. After liberals won a 4-to-3 majority last year, the court ordered the redrawing of state legislative district boundaries, which had long been gerrymandered to benefit Republicans. Earlier this week, the justices announced that they would hear a case that asks them to consider whether the State Constitution includes a right to abortion.

For much of the 2010s, Democrats were relegated to Wisconsin’s policymaking sidelines as Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature reshaped the state in a more conservative image, including by weakening the power of labor unions. When the union limits were challenged, the Wisconsin Supreme Court, then controlled by conservatives, gave the new policy a judicial blessing.

After Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, won election in 2018 and re-election in 2022, the State Supreme Court remained an obstacle for liberals. The conservative majority ruled against ballot drop boxes and created a “least changes” standard for legislative redistricting that locked in Republican advantages. The court also said that officials appointed by Mr. Walker could stay in their posts after their terms expired until the Republican-controlled State Senate confirmed replacements selected by Mr. Evers — which the senators often declined to do.

Unlike those in some other states, Wisconsin’s Supreme Court is officially nonpartisan. The justices are elected on a statewide ballot to staggered 10-year terms. Still, the ideological lines on the court have long been clear, and even the pretense of neutrality has been fading out of justices’ election campaigns.

When Justice Janet Protasiewicz was running for election last year, she said that she believed abortion should be “a woman’s right to choose,” and declared the state’s legislative maps to be “rigged.” The race was the most expensive judicial election in American history, and Justice Protasiewicz’s victory flipped the court, which previously had a 4-to-3 conservative majority, to liberal control.

There is a possibility, at least, that some of the court’s newest rulings may not stand for long. A liberal justice whose term expires next year is not seeking re-election, and conservatives could retake the majority if they win that seat. The campaign is already well underway.

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