(Reuters) -A divided Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the use of ballot drop boxes, which increased substantially across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, is illegal under state law.
In a 4-3 ruling, the court's conservative majority also said voters cannot have other people return their completed ballots in person to a clerk's office, though it declined to rule on whether anyone other than a voter can send in ballots by mail.
The decision ensures that drop boxes will not be in place for the state's August primary election as well as November's general election, when Democratic Governor Tony Evers and Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson will both seek re-election in crucial midterm races.
Republicans across the country have sought to limit the use of absentee ballots after the 2020 election, when then-President Donald Trump falsely claimed that mail voting and drop boxes helped facilitate election fraud. Election officials say the boxes are secure.
Wisconsin is likely a key battleground in the 2024 presidential election. In 2016, Trump won the state by fewer than 25,000 votes out of 2.8 million cast, and in 2020, President Joe Biden, a Democrat, carried Wisconsin by fewer than 21,000 votes out of 3.2 million cast.
is now illegal under state law, a method of voting that increased
The Wisconsin high court affirmed a ruling from a lower court judge after a conservative group, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, sued the state's elections commission on behalf of two voters.
The commission had approved the use of drop boxes in response to the pandemic, when many voters were anxious to limit in-person interactions. The November 2020 election included 528 boxes statewide, according to election officials. But Justice Rebecca Bradley, writing for the majority, said that under state law ballots must be returned to a clerk's office or another designated site, not an "inanimate object" such as an unstaffed box.
"Only the legislature may permit absentee voting via ballot drop boxes," she wrote. In dissent, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley - joined by the court's two other liberals - said the decision erected a new barrier to voting with little justification.
"Although it pays lip service to the import of the right to vote, the majority/lead opinion has the practical effect of making it more difficult to exercise it," she wrote.
The dissent also argued that the decision to bar other people from returning ballots to clerks' offices would primarily hurt homebound residents, including disabled and sick people. In a statement, Evers said, "Today's decision is another in a long line of Wisconsin Republicans' successes to make it harder for Wisconsinites to exercise their right to vote, to undermine our free, fair, and secure elections, and to threaten our democracy." Robin Vos, the Republican leader in the state assembly, praised the decision on Twitter.
"Our next step has to be electing a new governor who will sign additional election reforms," he wrote. (Reporting by Joseph AxEditing by Colleen Jenkins, Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)