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Wisconsin election officials deadlock on drop-box rules

By SCOTT BAUER and TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin elections officials failed to reach a consensus Friday on how to handle Republican lawmakers’ demands that they either withdraw guidance on absentee ballot drop boxes or quickly publish formal rules, opening the door to yet another legal battle.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, deadlocked 3-3 Friday three times on what to do next.

“It’s up to the courts now,” said the Democratic commissioner Mark Thomsen.

Wisconsin law is silent on drop boxes. The elections commission issued guidance in March 2020 saying they could be placed in multiple locations.

Republicans have already filed three lawsuits seeking to curtail the use of absentee drop boxes, which were widely used in Wisconsin in the 2020 presidential election largely because of the pandemic.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court is considering multiple requests to take up the issue after a lower court’s ruling barring their use outside of clerk offices was put on hold by a state appeals court until after the Feb. 15 spring primary.

Thomsen argued against taking any action before the Supreme Court weighs in. Republicans advocated for withdrawing the commission’s current guidance, as Republicans in the Legislature ordered. That motion failed 3-3, as did one supported by Democrats to pursue writing an emergency rule on drop boxes that is consistent with current guidance.

“We should not upset that status quo,” Thomsen said. “I want Supreme Court guidance for this agency on what is guidance, what are rules, when do we need to make rules. We need that case.”

Republicans have been trying to scale back the use of drop boxes since President Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump by just under 21,000 votes in 2020.

One tactic Republican state lawmakers are taking is to force the Wisconsin Elections Commission to either withdraw its guidance or enact an emergency rule by Feb. 9 governing drop boxes, including such things as how many are allowed and where they can be placed. Once the agency enacts a rule, a Republican-controlled legislative committee could block them.

Republican commissioner Dean Knudson argued that the easiest solution was to withdraw the guidance.

“It’s simple, it’s common sense, it’s straightforward,” he said.

Not doing that is “a surefire way to get into more litigation,” Knudson said.

The commission issued guidance on drop boxes in a move to make voting more convenient and safer as the COVID-19 pandemic intensified.

Republicans who previously voiced support for absentee drop boxes have intensified criticism following Trump’s loss, saying they increase the potential for fraud.

No widespread fraud has been found in Wisconsin, despite numerous lawsuits and reviews, and to date only five people have been charged with voter fraud in Wisconsin out of nearly 3.3 million who cast ballots in the presidential race.

The elections commission also is working on permanent rules codifying guidance allowing clerks to correct witness address mistakes on absentee ballot envelopes without contacting the witness or the voter. Republicans, again with no underlying evidence, insist that practice is ripe for fraud as well. The rules committee earlier this month ordered the commission to publish the guidance as an emergency rule by Feb. 9, which would allow the committee to kill that policy, too.

Republicans have made similar moves since Trump’s defeat to tighten access to ballots in other battleground states. The restrictions especially target voting methods that have been rising in popularity and erecting hurdles to mail balloting and early voting that saw explosive growth earlier in the pandemic. More than 40% of all voters in the 2020 presidential election cast mail ballots, a record high.

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