Ballot boxes are being returned to Wisconsin after top court ruling

Liberals on the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday cleared the way for the use of absentee ballot drop boxes, changing voting rules four months before the presidential election and reversing a decision made by conservatives two years ago when they controlled the court.

The 4-3 decision came a year after liberals won a majority on the top court in a crucial swing state and six months after they undoed a gerrymander that had long given Republicans an overwhelming majority in the state Legislature. The potential for other major rulings became clearer this week as the justices agreed to hear two key abortion cases, and an appeal was coming to them that will determine whether to strike down parts of a law that has weakened the powers of unions for public employees for more than a decade.

Ballot drop boxes have been available in some Wisconsin communities for years, and their use was greatly expanded for the 2020 presidential election as voters began voting absentee due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Wisconsin's top Republicans supported them at the time, but turned against them after Joe Biden narrowly defeated Donald Trump in the state.

Four months before the 2022 midterm elections, conservatives who control the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of a group of voters who argued that ballot drop boxes could not be used because state law did not specifically authorize them. A year later, voters elected a liberal to replace a retiring conservative judge, ending 15 years of conservative control of the court.

Soon after, the liberal group Priorities USA sued to bring back ballot drop boxes, and a trial judge dismissed its claim because of the state Supreme Court’s 2022 decision. On Friday, the judges overturned the 2022 decision on drop boxes and sent Priorities USA’s case back to the trial judge for further proceedings.

Supporters say drop boxes give voters a secure, convenient way to return ballots so they can be counted. Opponents say the Legislature should determine whether to allow them and, if so, set rules to ensure they are properly monitored and distributed equally across the state.

Friday’s decision was a reminder of how quickly judicial elections can change the direction of a state. Just months after conservatives won a majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court in 2022, they overturned recent liberal decisions by approving a voter ID law and restoring a Republican gerrymander.

In Wisconsin, control of the court will be up for grabs in April because a liberal judge is not running for re-election. Before he leaves, the court is expected to decide whether abortion can continue in the state.

The court this week agreed to review a trial court judge's ruling that the 19th-century law does not ban most abortions. Separately, it accepted a case filed by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, which asked to declare that the state constitution guarantees a right to abortion. A ruling in favor of the group could have implications for many long-standing abortion restrictions, such as the state's 24-hour waiting period.

Meanwhile, a fight is raging over a 2011 law that virtually eliminated collective bargaining for most public employees in Wisconsin. On Wednesday, a trial judge ruled that parts of the law violate the state constitution because it treats unions for police officers and firefighters differently from unions for most other public employees. The case is expected to go to the high court, but it’s unclear whether it will get there before or after next year’s election for a seat on the court.

The labor law, known as Act 10, sparked massive protests and an attempt to remove Governor Scott Walker (R) from office. Walker became the first governor in US history to survive a recall election and served two terms before losing re-election in 2018.

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