RACINE AND KENOSHA – A conservative law firm’s lawsuits against the Cities of Racine and Kenosha over the use of unstaffed absentee ballot drop boxes were recently dismissed after a pair of separate District Court hearings.
The Thomas More Society of Chicago, through its special counsel, Erick Kaardal, filed the lawsuits on May 25 against elections officials in both cities. The Racine suit was filed on behalf of city resident Sandy Weidner, who is a former member of the Racine Common Council and an unsuccessful candidate for mayor. The Kenosha suit was filed on behalf of city resident Dean Romano, who had filed other election-related complaints against the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Thomas More Society also filed similar lawsuits that same day against elections officials in Milwaukee, Green Bay and Madison.
Kaardal sought court orders declaring the use of unmanned drop boxes “legally unauthorized” under Wisconsin state law; a permanent injunction against the use of unmanned drop boxes and “any other relief” the court deems necessary.
However, since the lawsuits were filed, a July 8 ruling by the Wisconsin Supreme Court stated that absentee ballots could only be delivered to a local municipality clerk’s office in person or via mail. Wisconsin state law does not specifically address the use of unmanned drop boxes to collect ballots.
Last Friday (Aug. 26), Racine County District Court Judge Mark F. Nielsen accepted the motion of City Attorney Scott Letteney to dismiss the suit against the City of Racine and City Clerk Tara Coolidge (now McMenamin). The judge dismissed the case “without costs to either party,” according to online court records.
“The City argued that procedurally the case was not properly before the circuit court,” Letteney stated in an email to the Racine County Eye on Monday. “In the end, the court stated that, irrespective of any argument, the case was moot due to the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision in Teigen v. Wisconsin Elections Commission,” (the court’s July 8 ruling).
In Kenosha County District Court, Judge Bruce E. Schroeder accepted a motion to dismiss the case from attorney Bryan A. Charbogian during a hearing last Tuesday (Aug. 23). On Monday, Schroeder formally dismissed the case “as moot and without cost to any party,” according to online court records. He added that the Thomas More Society could file a complaint “if the City of Kenosha unlawfully uses ballot drop boxes in future elections.”
In separate news releases, the Thomas More Society hailed the dismissals as an “election integrity victory for Wisconsin voters.”
At both hearings, Kaardal argued that even though the state’s High Court formally ruled against the use of unmanned vote drop boxes, the case is not moot until both Racine and Kenosha address the use of drop boxes. For Racine, he argued for the city to adopt “a resolution renouncing the use of absentee ballot drop boxes” while for Kenosha, he wanted the city to repeal “its current drop box policy.”
Neither city currently uses unmanned drop boxes to collect absentee ballots. The City of Racine’s purple ballot drop boxes have been placed in storage since the November 2020 general election. Drop boxes outside Racine’s City Hall and Kenosha’s Municipal Building, which are used to collect utility payments, include prominent warning labels cautioning users that any ballots placed there will not be counted.
Ballot drop box case background
The Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) issued guidance in 2020 providing local clerks with advice on the best practices for unstaffed drop boxes if they chose to use them. Drop boxes to collect absentee ballots were seen as a safe alternative to in-person voting during the COVID-19 pandemic that was sweeping across the country at the time.
Roughly 2 million Wisconsin residents voted absentee in the November 2020 election, shattering the previous record. According to the WEC, there were 528 drop boxes in use in the 2020 presidential election spread across 430 municipalities. By the spring of 2021, local officials reported a total of 570 drop boxes spread across 66 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties.
However, in the wake of the 2020 presidential election that former President Donald Trump narrowly lost to Joe Biden, Trump and his supporters claimed that the use of ballot drop boxes contributed to voter fraud. Subsequent vote reviews and investigations in Wisconsin found minimal fraud and no fraud tied to drop box use.
After the 2020 election, conservative legal organizations, including the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) and the Thomas More Society, argued that the use of drop boxes were in violation of state law. They began filing complaints against the WEC and lawsuits against local election officials. One of the cases was eventually heard by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Writing for the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s majority, Justice Rebecca Bradley contended that the WEC’s earlier guidance to local elections officials exceeded its authority.
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