State of Democracy Spotlight Series: Wisconsin

Court Decisions in Wisconsin Have Already Impacted Voters This Year, and More Changes Could Come Before Election Day

Ballot Drop Boxes

With less than two weeks remaining until the midterm election, voting rules in Wisconsin are in flux as court decisions change policies and potentially create voter confusion and uncertainty around results. Earlier this year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a controversial decision completely banning the use of ballot drop boxes in the state. The decision means that Wisconsin is now one of only 10 states that ban the use of ballot drop boxes, which are a popular and secure option used by millions of voters around the country.

Third-party ballot return

The court also severely restricted third-party ballot return or collection, meaning that voters in Wisconsin may return only their own mail ballot and cannot receive assistance doing so unless they are disabled. Under this court decision members of the same household, for example, are not even allowed to return mail ballots on the others’ behalf. Only four other states — Alabama, Tennessee, South Dakota, and Virginia — have such strict restrictions on ballot collection.

Witness Signatures and Address Requirements for Mail Ballots

In ongoing legal challenges, courts have ruled against previous guidance from the state election commission, which had allowed officials to correct mail ballots where the address of the witness was incomplete.

Ballot Spoiling

Litigation is also ongoing related to a practice called “ballot spoiling,” which allows a voter to cancel their original absentee ballot and cast a new one. Earlier this month, a trial court in Wisconsin ruled that the practice is prohibited. Ballot spoiling has received more attention than usual following the state’s August primary, where multiple candidates dropped out, but their names still remained on ballots. The state court of appeals has temporarily put the lower court prohibition of ballot spoiling on hold while arguments continue, leading to additional uncertainty with just over a week until Election Day.

Lack of Ballot Pre-Processing Will Lead to Delays of Election Results and Increase Danger of Election Denial

Wisconsin is one of only eight states that does not allow pre-processing of absentee ballots before Election Day. The pre-processing of absentee ballots involves taking steps such as verifying voter signatures and opening ballot envelopes so that counting can later be done more quickly; however, it does not involve tallying or releasing results ahead of Election Day.

Overall, the lack of pre-processing is particularly problematic given the rise in absentee voting and the ways in which vote count delays are now being used to sow doubt and undermine America’s democracy.

Outcome of the Governor’s Race Could Impact Future Voting Restrictions and Election Challenges

The result of Wisconsin’s governor’s race this year could have a significant impact on future voting rights and the health of democracy in the state. Since the 2020 election, the state’s Democratic governor has vetoed almost 20 election and voting restrictive bills passed by the Republican-controlled legislature. Restrictions vetoed by the governor included proposals to:

  • Restrict the availability of the state’s permanent absentee list, where voters can sign up to receive an absentee ballot each election cycle.
  • Restrict voting accommodations for voters in nursing homes or who are otherwise indefinitely confined due to illness, infirmity, or disability (these voters are currently exempted from the state’s strict voter ID requirements).
  • Give more power to partisan poll watchers to be within closer proximity to voters, raising the danger of intimidation.
  • Give the legislature power to interfere in election administration through the ability to block federal and state election guidance.
  • Prohibit election officials from filling in incomplete witness information on absentee ballots.
  • Ban proactive mailing of absentee ballot applications to voters, an option utilized during the 2020 election.
  • Codify a complete ban on ballot drop boxes.

Wisconsin Ranks Below Average in Terms of Voting and Election Policies

Wisconsin ranks 33rd in the nation in our Democracy Tally for its voting, election, and democracy policies. The Democracy Maps currently track 45 laws and policies for each state, which inform this tally.

Election Security

Despite false claims of voter fraud from elected officials in the state, Wisconsin actually has fairly strong policies to ensure election security, including the following:

Voting in Person

Wisconsin’s lowest Democracy Maps ranking is in the category of Voting in Person.

Voter Registration

Despite policies to limit voter participation both for in-person voting and voting by mail, Wisconsin has strong voter registration policies.

Representation and Participation

  • While Wisconsin ranks 27th in the nation in terms of voter registration rate at just under 88%, the state ranked 4th in the nation in terms of voter turnout in 2020 at just under 76%.
  • Wisconsin could improve its policy on the restoration of voting rights for formerly incarcerated people by allowing automatic restoration of rights upon release from incarceration. The state’s current policy requires the full completion of post-sentencing, including probation and parole, before rights are restored.

Voting by Mail

Independence and Integrity

Wisconsin trails in its policies for independent elections and election integrity.

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Democracy Maps

Democracy Maps

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Democracy Maps tracks more than 40 laws and policies on elections and voting. Project of Movement Advancement Project, an independent, nonprofit think tank.