Clerks struggle to find clarity after Supreme Court drop box ruling

MADISON, Wis. — A state Supreme Court decision that disallowed the use of drop boxes for the April 5 election has caused confusion among clerks, some of whom are now backtracking incorrect guidance they gave their voters.

The ruling caused confusion because the Wisconsin Election Commission, which usually interprets those decisions and provides guidance to clerks, was effectively prevented by the high court from issuing such guidance ahead of the April election.

“They’re working in good faith to get everything right and it’s tough right now,” said Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson. As county clerk, she helps oversee the municipal clerks in her county who directly administer elections.

She coordinated with all the municipal clerks in her county to create one singular guidance ahead of the April 5 election.

“It’s so important that we are cohesive and make sure that you’re not hearing it being handled differently one location than another, so everybody is on the same page,” Tollefson said. 

Other organizations, like the Wisconsin Counties Association, and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities stepped in to help provide guidance to clerks that were still looking for answers.

“The clerks were calling our legal team, struggling with how to proceed after the court decision,” said Curt Witynski, deputy executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.

“Many of our smaller communities, and there are a lot of small communities in Wisconsin, don’t have in-house legal counsel they can turn to right away,” Witynski added. “So the next step down in the hierarchy of resources to turn to would have been us, and so that’s why they were calling us.”

Compounding the issue for someone like Tollefson is the high turnover rate of clerks in her county. Of the 29 municipalities in her county, 11 of them have new clerks.

“I’m actually having a mock election next week for my new clerks to come and go through an election day just to get them used to the process,” she said. “Luckily, a lot of them have some really strong chief inspectors at those polling locations and the chief inspectors’ in charge on election day, so we’ve got a good base.”

This all comes after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Friday that two clerks in Washington County issued corrections on the guidance they gave voters: in Slinger, to place ballots in unstaffed drop boxes — boxes actually must be staffed — and in Richfield, that voters must bring photo IDs with them to drop off ballots — which is not a requirement under state law.

sign with guidance on returning absentee ballots

A sign posted to the Richfield Village Hall instructs voters how to return absentee ballots before the April 5 election. (Courtesy: Jim Healy)

Richfield posted signs at its village hall to correct the error, according to the village’s administrator.

Under the current ruling by the state Supreme Court, absentee voters must either mail their ballots back or return them to a location that is staffed by their municipal clerk’s office. Voters can only return their own ballot, no one else’s.