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Wisconsin election officials tell clerks best ways to operate absentee ballot drop boxes

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission on Thursday unanimously approved a set of best practices to ensure the security of unstaffed absentee ballot drop boxes that the state Supreme Court last week ruled could be installed for the fall elections.

The use of drop boxes became a partisan issue after Donald Trump lost to President Joe Biden in Wisconsin by just under 21,000 votes in 2020. Wisconsin is once again expected to be one of the few swing states this year, heightening attention to voting rules.

Since his defeat, Trump and Republicans have alleged that drop boxes in Wisconsin facilitated cheating, even though they offered no credible evidence. Democrats, election officials and some Republicans argued the boxes are secure. An Associated Press survey of state election officials across the U.S. revealed no cases of fraud, vandalism or theft that could have affected the results in 2020.

The best practices approved Thursday, to be distributed to the state’s 1,800 local officials who administer elections, detail ways to make drop boxes and surrounding areas safe, well-lit and accessible to voters. The guidance also encourages clerks to empty drop boxes before they get full.

The guidance does not specify that the boxes be emptied on any type of regular interval. It also says recording when the drop box is emptied, who did it and how many ballots are retrieved is encouraged.

The guidance also recommends that the drop boxes be clearly marked and that any damage be documented and inspected to ensure the box can be safely used. Clerks were also encouraged to communicate to voters the locations of drop boxes and when the last ballot retrieval date will be.

The guidance for clerks is just that. The best practices are not mandatory.

The commission opted not to adopt an emergency rule, which carries the weight of law, and instead issued the guidance to clerks which is in response to questions that came in the wake of the court’s ruling last week.

The commission wanted to move quickly to explain the impact of the court’s ruling that allows for the use of unstaffed drop boxes in all future elections, including the Aug. 13 primary and Nov. 5 presidential election.

Drop boxes had been used for years in Wisconsin, but their popularity exploded in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 40% of Wisconsin voters casting mail ballots, a record high.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2022, then controlled by conservatives, ruled in favor of a conservative law firm that challenged the use of unstaffed drop boxes outside of clerk offices, such as near libraries and other public spaces. The court ruled that drop boxes can only be located at offices staffed by election clerks, not at remote, unstaffed locations.

Liberals brought a new challenge after the Wisconsin Supreme Court flipped to liberal control last year. The court last week overturned the 2022 ruling and once again allowed the use of absentee ballot drop boxes.

Drop boxes were used in 39 other states during the 2022 election, according to the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project.

Scott Bauer, The Associated Press