Wisconsin judge rules that absentee voting van used in 2022 was illegal

MADISON, Wis. — A Wisconsin judge has ruled that state law does not allow the use of mobile absentee voting sites, siding with Republicans who challenged Racine’s use of a ballot drop box that rolled around the city in 2022.

Republicans opposed the use of the van, the only one of its kind in Wisconsin, saying its use violated the law, increased the risk of voter fraud and was used to boost Democratic turnout.

Racine officials, the Democratic National Committee and the Milwaukee-based voting advocacy group Black Leaders Organizing for Communities refuted those claims and defended the legality of the van, saying there was no specific ban on it.

The mobile ballot drop lawsuit is one of several in Wisconsin that could impact voting rules in the upcoming presidential election.

The van was first used in Racine’s 2022 municipal election. It was purchased with grant money Racine received from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, the nonprofit founded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife. Republicans were critical of the subsidies, calling the money “Zuckerbucks” that they say was used to tilt turnout in Democratic areas.

The van was only used to allow early in-person voting during the two weeks leading up to an election, said Tara McMenamin, Racine’s city clerk. She said the vehicle was useful as it became too cumbersome for her staff to set up their equipment at remote polling places.

It traveled around the city meeting voters in their neighborhoods and collecting early ballots.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Elections Commission on behalf of Racine County Republican Party Chairman Ken Brown the day after the August 2022 primary, arguing the van violated state law . They argued that it was only sent to Democratic areas in the city in an illegal attempt to increase turnout.

McMenamin disputed those allegations, saying it shows a misunderstanding of the city’s voting divisions, which traditionally lean Democratic.

The election commission dismissed the complaint four days before the election in November that year, saying there was no probable cause to believe the law had been broken. That prompted the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty to file a lawsuit.

Racine County Circuit Judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz in a ruling Monday overturned the Election Commission’s dismissal of the complaint, saying state election laws do not allow the use of mobile voting sites.

“Nowhere can this Court find or obtain any authority authorizing the use of a van or vehicle as a substitute absentee voting vehicle,” the judge wrote.

He rejected defendants’ argument that the use of mobile voting sites was permissible because there is no specific ban on them.

The judge said his ruling was not a decision on whether mobile voting sites were a good idea or not. That’s for the Legislature to decide, Gasiorkiewicz said.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission and the Department of Justice, which represented her in the lawsuit, did not return messages seeking comment on whether the decision will be appealed. McMenamin said the decision is under review and next steps will be clearer next week.

Early in-person absentee voting in Wisconsin for the spring municipal elections begins on February 6. The presidential primary is April 2, with absentee voting allowed two weeks before that.

If appealed, the case could ultimately be decided by the liberal-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Lucas Vebber, deputy counsel at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, applauded the ruling.

“Wisconsin voters need to know that their elections are secure and that election administration does not favor one political party over another,” Vebber said. “This decision does just that.”