Wisconsin Supreme Court Agrees To Review Case Over Early Voting Sites

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday agreed to review a lawsuit that could have major implications for the availability of in-person absentee voting sites, which offer early voting at multiple locations within a given municipality.

Over the dissent of three conservative justices, the newly liberal court indicated that it will hear oral argument in the fall of 2024, although it is unclear as to whether it will issue a ruling prior to the November election. 

Friday’s order stems from an appeal of a right-wing lawsuit brought by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) that sought to limit the availability of early, in-person absentee voting sites in the city of Racine. 

In a January 2024 ruling, a Wisconsin trial court judge partially ruled in favor of WILL, holding that Racine’s use of an “election van” in 2022 — which moved from place to place to allow for early, in-person absentee voting — violated Wisconsin law. The judge also concluded that Racine’s distribution of in-person absentee voting sites unlawfully afforded an advantage to the Democratic Party.

However, in the same ruling, the judge dismissed WILL’s other claims that aimed to curtail the use of in-person absentee voting sites more broadly. In particular, the judge rejected WILL’s argument that in-person absentee ballot sites should be located as near as possible to the office of the municipal clerk or board of election commissioners. 

Following the trial court’s decision, multiple parties — including Wisconsin election officials, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC) and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) — sought to bypass the appeals court level and asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to review the case. 

According to Wisconsin election officials, the trial court’s ruling creates “uncertainty” surrounding the permissibility of absentee voting sites and could even lead “some municipalities [to] unnecessarily limit the number and location of absentee voting sites, thereby impinging voters’ ability to effectively cast a ballot.” 

BLOC and the DNC — which got involved in the case as intervening parties — expressed similar concerns about the potential of the court’s ruling to severely limit the number of available early voting locations. The groups argue that under the trial court’s standard that sites cannot confer a partisan advantage, “it would be impossible for Wisconsin’s cities to designate alternate sites anywhere outside the immediate vicinity of the municipal clerk’s office.” 

The organizations also underscore how “[t]he circuit court order poses a unique threat to voters of color,” who predominate in Wisconsin’s cities.

On the other side, WILL asked the state Supreme Court to review aspects of the trial court’s decision that declined to require in-person absentee voting sites to be situated as closely as possible to a municipal clerk’s office. While pro-voting groups assert that current state law no longer imposes this requirement, WILL argues that Racine’s “scattering” of absentee voting sites throughout different areas outside of where the municipal clerk’s office is located “was what conferred partisan advantage” to Democrats during the 2022 primary election. 

WILL previously asked Justice Janet Protasiewicz — the court’s newest liberal member — to recuse herself, but she denied the request in March. 

Last week’s order is not the first time that the state Supreme Court has agreed to allow parties in an election case to bypass the appeals court level. Next Monday, the court is scheduled to hear oral argument in a case that will determine whether Wisconsin’s ban on drop boxes will be overturned ahead of the 2024 election. 

Read the order here.

Learn more about the case here.