Note: We are breaking our own rules again. WJI's "SCOW docket" pieces generally include decisions, dissents and concurrences all in one post. This time, with this case, we are doing it in four: First the lead decision, then the dissent, and then, in two separate posts due to length, the three concurrences. Why? Because this package of writings is significant and gives insight into how SCOW's seven justices think.
And instead of allowing each writing justice 10 paragraphs, we are allowing up to 20. We also added a section on standing and other threshold issues. Other than that, the rules remain pretty much the same. The "Upshot," "Background" and, in this case, "Threshold issues" sections do not count as part of the 20 paragraphs because of their summary and very necessary nature. We've also removed citations from the opinion for ease of reading, but have linked to important cases and laws cited or information about them. Italics indicate WJI insertions except for case names, which also are italicized.
The case: Richard Teigen and Richard Thom v. Wisconsin Elections Commission
Majority/Lead Opinion: Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley (52 pages), joined by Justice Patience D. Roggensack and Chief Justice Annette K. Ziegler; joined in part by Justice Brian Hagedorn
Concurrence: Roggensack (14 pages)
Concurrence: Rebecca Grassl Bradley (17 pages), joined by Roggensack and Ziegler
Concurrence: Hagedorn (35 pages)
Dissent: Justice Ann Walsh Bradley (18 pages), joined by Justices Rebecca F. Dallet and Jill J. Karofsky
Intervenor defendant-appellants included the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Disability Rights Wisconsin, Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.
Only the legislature may permit absentee voting via ballot drop boxes. WEC (Wisconsin Elections Commission) cannot. Ballot drop boxes appear nowhere in the detailed statutory system for absentee voting. WEC's authorization of ballot drop boxes was unlawful, and we therefore affirm the circuit court's declarations and permanent injunction of WEC's erroneous interpretations of law except to the extent its remedies required absentee voters to personally mail their ballots, an issue we do not decide at this time. ...
During the pandemic spring of 2020, to accommodate the higher demand for absentee voting, WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe issued a memo to local election officials.
The memo states: "[Ballot] drop boxes can be used for voters to return ballots but clerks should ensure they are secure, can be monitored for security purposes, and should be regularly emptied." It also says, "[a] family member or another person may . . . return the [absentee] ballot on behalf of a voter." WEC's commissioners never voted to adopt this memo.
A few months later, Administrator Wolfe and the assistant administrator issued the second document ("Memo two") ahead of the fall 2020 election. It encourages "creative solutions" to facilitate the use of ballot drop boxes. Specifically, Memo two informs municipal clerks that drop boxes can be "unstaffed," and states "[a]t a minimum, you should have a drop box at your primary municipal building, such as the village hall." WEC commissioners never voted on Memo two either.
Municipal clerks acted on these memos. Administrator Wolfe avers she is aware of 528 ballot drop boxes utilized for the fall 2020 election. By the spring 2021 election, Administrator Wolfe says municipal clerks and local election officials reported 570 drop boxes, spanning 66 of Wisconsin's 72 counties.
Teigen and Thom sued, challenging the legality of the drop boxes. Waukesha County Circuit Judge Michael Bohren issued an injunction prohibiting their use. The defendants appealed and the Supreme Court accepted the case, bypassing the Court of Appeals.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee challenged the plaintiffs' standing in the case. Only Roggensack and Ziegler joined in Grassl Bradley's reasoning in rejecting the challenge, meaning that her lead opinion does not constitute a binding precedent on the question.
DSCC argues the Wisconsin voters lack standing, asserting they "have not demonstrated 'a personal stake in the outcome of the controversy' separate and apart from the public at large, nor have they shown they have 'suffered or [are] threatened with an injury to an interest that is legally protectable.' " We reject this argument because the Wisconsin voters do have a "stake in the outcome" and are "affected by the issues in controversy."
If the right to vote is to have any meaning at all, elections must be conducted according to law. Throughout history, tyrants have claimed electoral victory via elections conducted in violation of governing law. For example, Saddam Hussein was reportedly elected in 2002 by a unanimous vote of all eligible voters in Iraq (11,445,638 people). Examples of such corruption are replete in history. In the 21st century, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was elected in 2014 with 100% of the vote while his father, Kim Jong-il, previously won 99.9% of the vote. Former President of Cuba, Raul Castro, won 99.4% of the vote in 2008 while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was elected with 97.6% of the vote in 2007. Even if citizens of such nations are allowed to check a box on a ballot, they possess only a hollow right.* Their rulers derive their power from force and fraud, not the people's consent. By contrast, in Wisconsin elected officials "deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed."
The right to vote presupposes the rule of law governs elections. If elections are conducted outside of the law, the people have not conferred their consent on the government. Such elections are unlawful and their results are illegitimate. ...
The Wisconsin voters' injury in fact is substantially more concrete than the "remote" injuries we have recognized as sufficient in the past. The record indicates hundreds of ballot drop boxes have been set up in past elections, prompted by the memos, and thousands of votes have been cast via this unlawful method, thereby directly harming the Wisconsin voters. The illegality of these drop boxes weakens the people's faith that the election produced an outcome reflective of their will. The Wisconsin voters, and all lawful voters, are injured when the institution charged with administering Wisconsin elections does not follow the law, leaving the results in question.
Justice Brian Hagedorn disagrees with our standing analysis, proffering an alternative basis for standing divined from searching the penumbra of Wis. Stat. § 5.06. Although § 5.06 appears nowhere in the complaint and sets forth specific procedures that were never invoked, Justice Hagedorn concludes it nevertheless confers standing on the Wisconsin voters. It can't.
Grassl Bradley, joined by Roggensack and Ziegler, also finds that the two voters did not first have to file their complaint with WEC and that the agency abandoned any sovereign immunity defense.
Although WEC asserted in its answer that sovereign immunity barred "some" of the Wisconsin voters' claims, it did not say which ones. No reasonable judge could view WEC's briefing and answers at oral argument as maintaining a sovereign immunity defense. WEC's attorney even said at oral argument that WEC takes "no position" on the matter.
*In a footnote, Grassl Bradley writes, "Justice Hagedorn seems to disagree, indicating the right to vote encompasses nothing more than the mere ability to cast a ballot. He fails to recognize that a lawful vote loses its operative effect if the election is not conducted in accordance with the rule of law."
(Joined by Hagedorn, Roggensack and Ziegler)
WEC's staff may have been trying to make voting as easy as possible during the pandemic, but whatever their motivations, WEC must follow Wisconsin statutes. Good intentions never override the law.
Nothing in the statutory language detailing the procedures by which absentee ballots may be cast mentions drop boxes or anything like them.
Wisconsin Stat. § 6.87(4)(b)1. provides, in relevant part, that absentee ballots "shall be mailed by the elector, or delivered in person, to the municipal clerk issuing the ballot or ballots." The prepositional phrase "to the municipal clerk" is key and must be given effect. ... An inanimate object, such as a ballot drop box, cannot be the municipal clerk. At a minimum, accordingly, dropping a ballot into an unattended drop box is not delivery "to the municipal clerk[.]"
State law allows establishment of alternate absentee ballot sites, Grassl Bradley writes.
Ballot drop boxes are not alternate absentee ballot sites because a voter can only return the voter's absentee ballot to a drop box, while an alternate site must also allow voters to request and vote absentee at the site. If a drop box were an alternate ballot site, by the plain language of the statute, "no function related to voting and return of absentee ballots that is to be conducted at the alternate site may be conducted in the office of the municipal clerk or board of election commissioners."
Existing outside the statutory parameters for voting, drop boxes are a novel creation of executive branch officials, not the legislature. The legislature enacted a detailed statutory construct for alternate sites. In contrast, the details of the drop box scheme are found nowhere in the statutes, but only in memos prepared by WEC staff, who did not cite any statutes whatsoever to support their invention.
Wisconsin Stat. § 6.855 identifies the sites at which in person absentee voting may be accomplished—either "the office of the municipal clerk" or "an alternate site" but not both. "An alternate site" serves as a replacement for "the office of the municipal clerk" rather than an additional site for absentee voting. Wisconsin Stat. § 6.87(4)(b)1. requires the elector to mail the absentee ballot or deliver it in person, "to the municipal clerk," which is defined to include "authorized representatives." This subparagraph contemplates only two ways to vote absentee: by mail and at "the office of the municipal clerk" or "an alternate site" as statutorily described. No third option exists.
The defendants contend "to the municipal clerk" encompasses unstaffed drop boxes maintained by the municipal clerk. A hyper-literal interpretation of this prepositional phrase, taken out of context, would permit voters to mail or personally deliver absentee ballots to the personal residence of the municipal clerk or even hand the municipal clerk absentee ballots at the grocery store. "Municipal clerk," however, denotes a public office, held by a public official acting in an official capacity when performing statutory duties such as accepting ballots. The statutes do not authorize the municipal clerk to perform any official duties related to the acceptance of ballots at any location beyond those statutorily prescribed.
The fairest interpretation of the phrase "to the municipal clerk" means mailing or delivering the absentee ballot to the municipal clerk at her office or, if designated ... , an alternate site. ...
WEC would have us believe, hiding within four words, "to the municipal clerk," is an expansive conception of voting methods never before recognized. We decline to read into the statutes a monumentally different voting mechanism not specified by the legislature. ...
(Joined by Roggensack and Ziegler)
Perhaps realizing "delivery in person to the municipal clerk" does not mean nor has it been historically understood to mean delivery to an unattended ballot drop box, the defendants analogize these boxes to a mailbox. Of course, the law expressly allows a voter to place an absentee ballot in a mailbox. Wis. Stat. § 6.87(4)(b)1. ("shall be mailed by the elector . . . ."). Ballot drop boxes, however, are not mailboxes.
The ordinary meaning of "mailed by the elector" ... contemplates involvement by a third-party mail carrier. ...
If there were any lingering doubt about the difference between drop boxes and mailing, drop boxes trigger the very concerns the legislature expressly seeks to avoid. "[V]oting by absentee ballot is a privilege exercised wholly outside the traditional safeguards of the polling place. The legislature finds that the privilege of voting by absentee ballot must be carefully regulated to prevent the potential for fraud or abuse[.]" As the Wisconsin voters argue, "a drop box contains only ballots, and lots of them in one place at the same time, making it a prime target for would-be tamperers, whereas mailboxes may or may not contain ballots at any given time." While the legislature has recognized absentee voting has many benefits for voters, the legislature has also enacted safeguards designed to minimize the possibility of fraud.
(Joined by Hagedorn, Roggensack, and Ziegler)
WEC's staff also erred in Memo one by stating "[a] family member or another person may . . . return the ballot on behalf of the voter," i.e., an agent of the voter may place the voter's absentee ballot in a drop box. The law does not permit this.
Wisconsin Stat. § 6.87(4)(b)1 states, in relevant part, "[t]he envelope shall be mailed by the elector, or delivered in person, to the municipal clerk issuing the ballot or ballots." (Emphasis added.) The key phrase is "in person" and it must be assigned its natural meaning.
"Ballot drop boxes, however, are not mailboxes."
Reading the election statutes in context and as a whole, we conclude an absentee ballot delivered in person under Wis. Stat. § 6.87(4)(b)1. must be delivered personally by the voter.
DRW argues federal law preempts the circuit court's interpretation of Wisconsin statutes. It cites (a federal law) which provides, "[a]ny voter who requires assistance to vote by reason of blindness, disability, or inability to read or write may be given assistance by a person of the voter's choice[.]" DRW claims "[t]he assistance addressed [in this statute] . . . extends to returning that ballot so it may be counted." DRW's discussion of (the law) is limited to one paragraph in its opening brief. It cites nothing more than a single source of legislative history for support. DRW selectively quotes from this report, omitting the first sentence of the paragraph on which it relies, which states: "STATE PROVISIONS WOULD BE PREEMPTED ONLY TO THE EXTENT THAT THEY UNDULY BURDEN THE RIGHT RECOGNIZED IN THIS SECTION, WITH THAT DETERMINATION BEING A PRACTICAL ONE DEPENDENT UPON THE FACTS." Additionally, DRW does not address Wis. Stat. § 6.87(5), which states: If the absent elector declares that he or she is unable to read, has difficulty in reading, writing or understanding English or due to disability is unable to mark his or her ballot, the elector may select any individual, except the elector's employer or an agent of that employer or an officer or agent of a labor organization which represents the elector, to assist in marking the ballot, and the assistant shall then sign his or her name to a certification on the back of the ballot. ...
DRW also cites the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but, similarly, its discussion of the ADA is limited to a single paragraph in its opening brief. DRW does not cite any binding cases supporting its preemption argument, nor does DRW discuss preemption in its reply brief, even though the Wisconsin voters complained the argument was underdeveloped.
(Joined by Roggensack and Ziegler)
As far as we can discern, DRW's argument largely rests on the practical impact of the circuit court's declarations on disabled voters who may be physically unable to vote if someone cannot place an absentee ballot in the mail on a voter's behalf. We agree with the Wisconsin voters that DRW's argument is underdeveloped. ... Whatever accommodations federal law requires, Wis. Stat. § 6.87(5) seems to permit them. We address the argument no further.
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