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Wisconsin judge refuses to stay drop box restrictions ruling

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FILE - Ballot drop box outside of La Crosse's city hall.

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Wisconsin judge refused Friday to stay a ruling restricting the use of absentee ballot drop boxes, rejecting arguments that the decision will confuse voters heading into the Feb. 15 spring primary.

Waukesha County Circuit Judge Michael Bohren’s decision hands Republicans another win as they battle on multiple fronts to limit drop box use across the state ahead of the November gubernatorial election.

The use of drop boxes has become a charged political issue since the Wisconsin Elections Commission advised clerks in 2020 that they can place drop boxes wherever they wish. A number of Wisconsin cities placed them in multiple locations during the 2020 presidential election, including city parks. Officials hoped that approach would lead to shorter lines at the polls and less chance of spreading COVID-19.

Democrats pushed for the multiple locations, hoping they would lead to increased turnout. Republicans decried it, saying more locations means more opportunity for fraud. The GOP has failed to produce any evidence of widespread fraud during the election, and recounts and numerous court cases have confirmed Joe Biden defeated former President Donald Trump.

Still, two Milwaukee voters represented by conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty filed a lawsuit in June challenging the election commission’s guidance. An array of groups, including the commission, the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, Disability Rights Wisconsin, Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice and the League of Women Voters are opposing the lawsuit.

Bohren sided with the voters in a Jan. 13 ruling, saying the commission had no legal basis to issue such advice and ordered the panel to rescind it by Jan. 27.

The state Department of Justice, led by Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, notified Bohren on Thursday it plans to appeal. The defendant groups on Friday asked Bohren to stay the ruling on an emergency basis, arguing that changing election procedures so close to the Feb. 15 primary will confuse voters and lead to people not being able to cast ballots.

Luke Berg, an attorney for the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, countered that restricting drop box placement is a simple change that shouldn’t confuse anyone.

Bohren refused to issue the stay, saying he was confident the ruling wouldn’t cause any irreparable harm. He also reiterated that the election commission had no legal grounds to advise clerks to place drop boxes anywhere and there’s no harm in reverting to the pre-2020 status quo.

Bohren ordered the commission to rescind its guidance by Monday, moving up his deadline three days. The commission called a meeting for Monday afternoon to discuss their next steps.

The lawsuit is part of a multifaceted GOP effort to limit drop boxes.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed Republican bills last year that would have limited drop box locations and who could return the ballots.

Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, a GOP candidate for governor, filed her own lawsuit directly with the state Supreme Court in November challenging the election commission’s guidance to clerks. And a voter brought a third lawsuit earlier this month seeking to overturn the commission’s rejection of a complaint he filed about drop boxes.

Meanwhile, the Legislature’s Republican-controlled rules committee has ordered the election commission to put the guidance into rule form, which would allow the committee to block it.

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