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Wisconsin judge rules absentee ballot drop boxes can’t be used in the state

"I Voted" stickers are placed atop a ballot drop box during Congressional District 20 elections  in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Jan. 11.
"I Voted" stickers are placed atop a ballot drop box during Congressional District 20 elections in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Jan. 11. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A Wisconsin judge ruled Thursday that drop boxes for absentee ballots cannot be used in the state, a move that comes amid a push by Republicans across the country to restrict their use and a stymied attempt by congressional Democrats to require states to allow them.

Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Michael Bohren sided with a conservative organization that argued that while the state Elections Commission had issued detailed guidance on the use of drop boxes, their use is not specifically authorized by state law.

“It’s all good and nice, but there’s no authority to do it,” Bohren said from the bench, according to local media accounts.

The ruling is expected to be appealed, but Bohren said he would soon issue an injunction ordering the Elections Commission to withdraw advice to municipal clerks on use of the drop boxes.

While Democrats nationally have argued that drop boxes expand voting participation, Republicans in numerous states have targeted their use, claiming they invite fraud.

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Sweeping voting legislation passed Thursday by the U.S. House includes a provision that would require states to make secure drop boxes available.

However, that legislation, dubbed the “Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act,” is all but certain to be blocked next week by Republicans in the Senate.

President Biden has backed a plan to amend filibuster rules in the chamber, which would allow the bill to pass with a simple majority and no Republican support. But a pair of Democrats — Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) — made clear Thursday that they will not support that strategy.

The use of drop boxes in Wisconsin and other states expanded significantly in 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

President Donald Trump railed against their use, taking legal action in some cases. In a lawsuit in Pennsylvania, for example, the Trump campaign argued that state officials “have exponentially enhanced the threat that fraudulent or otherwise ineligible ballots will be cast and counted.”

Republicans lawmakers and election officials in several states have pushed legislation and regulations to restrict the use of drop boxes as well.

The plaintiffs in the Wisconsin suit are represented by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.

“There are just two legal methods to cast an absentee ballot in Wisconsin: through the mail or in-person at a clerk’s office,” Luke Berg, the organization’s deputy counsel, said in a statement Thursday. “We are pleased the court made this clear, providing Wisconsin voters with certainty for forthcoming elections.”

While the ruling is expected to be appealed, the state has scheduled judicial primary elections next month, with the general elections for those races slated for April. The state’s primaries for other offices are scheduled for August, with the general election in November.