MADISON, Wis. (NEWSnet/AP) — The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Friday that local election officials can place ballot drop boxes around their communities for this fall's elections, overturning a ruling from two years ago.

The court limited the use of drop boxes in July 2022, when conservatives controlled the court. The decision then was drop boxes could only be placed at local election clerks' offices, and that only the voter could return a ballot in person.

That court flipped to liberal control after Janet Protasiewicz was elected in 2023.

Seeing an opportunity, Priorities USA, a progressive voter mobilization group, asked the court in February to revisit the decision. At least 29 other states allow for absentee ballot drop boxes, according to the U.S. Vote Foundation.

A wider availability in Wisconsin could have major implications in the presidential race, which is considered to be a swing state. Democrats believe that making it easier to vote absentee will support voter interest and turnout for their side.

The popularity of absentee voting exploded during the pandemic in 2020, with more than 40% of all voters casting mail ballots, a record high. At least 500 drop boxes were set up in more than 430 communities for the election that year, including more than a dozen each in Madison and Milwaukee — the state’s two most heavily Democratic cities.

The Wisconsin justices announced in March they would review the ban on drop boxes but wouldn't consider any other parts of the case. The move drew the ire of the court's conservatives. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in April urged the court to again allow drop boxes.

The court ruled 4-3 on Friday that drop boxes can be utilized in any location.

Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, one of the court's four liberal justices, wrote for the majority that placing a ballot in a drop box set up and maintained by a local election clerk is no different than giving the ballot to the clerk, regardless of the box's location. Local clerks have great discretion in how they administer elections and that extends to using and locating drop boxes, she added.

"Our decision today does not force or require that any municipal clerks use drop boxes," Bradley wrote. “It merely acknowledges what (state law) has always meant: that clerks may lawfully utilize secure drop boxes in an exercise of their statutorily-conferred discretion.”

All three conservative justices dissented. Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote that the liberals are simply trying to advance a political agenda and criticized them for ignoring the 2022 precedent.

Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell, who administers elections in the state's most Democratic county, said the drop boxes make the election process more convenient for rural and disabled voters, and help reduce that number of ballots that arrive after election day too late to be counted.

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