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The politics of voter drop boxes

Every four years, U.S. citizens across the country wait in winding lines, patiently standing back-to-back as they prepare to cast their ballots for a presidential election. Yet, when the COVID-19 pandemic arose in March 2020, the days in which strangers could stand less than six feet apart or share an unmasked smile with other voters quickly vanished. While some still opted to vote in person in the 2020 Presidential Election, others cast their vote via absentee ballots in record numbers to avoid the risks associated with contracting the virus. 

Throughout the summer leading up to the election, former President Trump made a series of false claims regarding possible election fraud as a result of mail-in ballots, ultimately causing concern among some voters. Some questioned whether the U.S. Postal Service would deliver their ballots in a safe and timely manner.

These concerns, combined with the safety issues regarding COVID-19, led many states to establish an alternate approach to mail-in voting: Ballot drop boxes.

Ballot drop boxes are locked slots where voters may deliver their absentee ballot prior to Election Day. During the 2020 election, 40 out of 50 U.S. states provided ballot drop boxes as a voting option in locations scattered across the country, according to Lawfare.

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Addison Lathers

In Wisconsin, drop boxes have existed in some municipalities in the years before 2020. In anticipation of last year’s election, an influx of boxes was installed throughout the state—particularly in cities such as Madison and Milwaukee—with 14 new drop boxes in Madison and 15 in Milwaukee, respectively. While the new boxes were used in the presidential election, they will continue to be available for all future elections, including Madison’s upcoming election on April 6.

As ballot drop boxes became more available throughout the state, controversy arose between parties. While Democrats deemed the boxes a safe and trustworthy way to vote during the pandemic, many Republicans argued that the ballot boxes are illegal under Wisconsin law and would foster election fraud. 

In a recent case, prominent Republican donor Jere Fabick filed a lawsuit against the Wisconsin Elections Commission in an attempt to remove the boxes, citing that the cities of Madison and Milwaukee infringed upon state law. The lawsuit follows a series of court cases throughout the country which claim drop boxes may be easy to tamper with, though none have been successful.

Such notions by Republicans have been fueled by Trump’s argument that the ballot boxes are not secure, in addition to unsubstantiated claims about his loss in Wisconsin during the presidential election. In December 2020, the Trump administration filed a lawsuit targeting the city of Green Bay’s use of ballot boxes, despite their adherence to state guidelines and the addition of security cameras, Green Bay Press-Gazette reported. 

“So now the Democrats are using Mail Drop Boxes, which are a voter security disaster,” Trump tweeted in August 2020. “Among other things, they make it possible for a person to vote multiple times. Also, who controls them, are they placed in Republican or Democrat areas? They are not Covid sanitized. A big fraud!”

A proposed bill in the Wisconsin State Legislature additionally calls to limit a multitude of ballot boxes on the same premises. Authored by prominent state Republicans, Senate Bill 209 states that ballot boxes may only be utilized when attached to a building where the municipal clerk’s office is permanently located, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. 

In a comment to the Daily Cardinal, Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) noted his support for the bill.

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“Wisconsin state elections law does not authorize ballot drop boxes. Last year, Minnesota absentee ballots were found in Wisconsin ballot drop boxes and some boxes were located in grocery stores,” Stroebel said. “There are no uniform standards of process or ballot security for these boxes. That must change and that’s why I support SB 209, which promotes integrity in our elections and security in the return of completed absentee ballots.”

Wisconsin State Statute §6.87 gives each city, town and village clerk the discretion to decide how voted ballots can be returned to them by voters, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Thus, ballot drop boxes are legal as long as local clerks ensure they are locked and secure, have the ability to be monitored and are regularly emptied.

Due to the decentralized nature of Wisconsin’s election system, security measures are determined individually by municipal clerks and not by the Wisconsin Elections Commission. 

While the Wisconsin Elections Commission recommends a list of “best practices” to local clerks, such as monitoring by video surveillance cameras, there are no official requirements for municipalities.   

In response to the proposed legislature and recent lawsuits, City of Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway ensured citizens that voter drop boxes are a secure method of voting. 

“Some in the Wisconsin Legislature would like us to rip out our secure voter drop boxes,” Rhodes-Conway told the Wisconsin State Journal. “Now, big DC law firms are coming for them too. Let’s call this what it is, voter suppression, plain and simple. We will fight this action vigorously in the courts.”

In regard to the issue of Minnesota ballots being found in Wisconsin ballot drop boxes, Wisconsin Elections Commission Public Information Officer Reid Magney explained that placing a ballot in the correct dropbox is the responsibility of the voter.

“Because of the highly decentralized nature of Wisconsin election administration—we have 1,850 municipal clerks—clerks occasionally receive things from voters who do not live in that municipality,” Magney said. “This includes things like voter registration forms, absentee ballot requests, etc. Wisconsin’s clerks are conscientious about forwarding things to the correct jurisdiction when there is adequate time.”

Magney also stated that depending on how close it is to an election, there is no guarantee that a mis-deposited absentee ballot will make it to the correct clerk’s office in time to be counted on Election Day. Voters still have the responsibility to follow the instructions for returning absentee ballots that come along with their ballots if they want them to be counted.

UW-Madison Political Science Professor Barry Burden explained that such a discrepancy between parties may ultimately affect the public’s trust in the safety of future elections. 

“I worry that the lawsuits that went on both before the election and after are undermining confidence that people should have in the election system,” Burden said. “The irony of some of the lawsuits is that the people who filed them said that they were doing it to boost confidence in the elections, but all of those lawsuits after the election failed.”

As we look ahead to Madison’s April election, Burden said that safety and security measures may always be tweaked. As the founding director of the Elections Research Center, he noted that the 2020 presidential election was one of the most honest and secure elections in American history, so it is important to make this clear to voters in order to maintain political efficacy. 

“There may be other measures that may be helpful, but I think most important is to tell voters the truth, which is that the election was quite a success and drop boxes were part of that success,” Burden said.

City of Madison Absentee Ballot Drop Boxes closed at 5 p.m. April 5 for its spring elections. The Clerk’s Office asks that voters that haven’t returned their absentee ballot yet take their ballots to their polling location on Election Day.

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