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Madison draping now-illegal ballot drop boxes with messages about truth, democracy

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This now-defunct absentee ballot drop box outside Madison Fire Station No. 1 has been wrapped in black and emblazoned with a quote from Sojourner Truth in what Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway called democracy-themed art after the state Supreme Court ruled the boxes are illegal.

Rather than remove 14 absentee ballot drop boxes recently deemed illegal by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the city of Madison is covering them with what the mayor’s office calls democracy-themed art, her office said Wednesday.

The court’s conservative majority ruled in July that because state law is silent on the boxes, they could not be used in future elections. The boxes were rolled out on a large scale statewide prior to the 2020 presidential election amid public health warnings against large gatherings, such as at polling places, in the days before a COVID-19 vaccine was available.

With only three months left in the year, the House Jan. 6 committee is eyeing a close to its work and a final report laying out its findings about the U.S. Capitol insurrection. But, the investigation is not over.The committee has already revealed much of its work at eight hearings over the summer, showing in detail how former President Donald Trump ignored many of his closest advisers and amplified his false claims of election fraud after he lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden. Witnesses interviewed by the panel some of them Trump's closest allies recounted in videotaped testimony how the former president declined to act when hundreds of his supporters violently attacked the Capitol as Congress certified President Biden's victory on Jan. 6, 2021.Lawmakers say there is more to come. The nine-member panel seven Democrats and two Republicans interviewed witnesses through all of August, and they are hoping to have at least one hearing by the end of the month. Members met Tuesday to discuss the panel's next steps.Because the Jan. 6 panel is a temporary or "select" committee, it expires at the end of the current Congress. If Republicans take the majority in November's elections, as they are favored to do, they are expected to dissolve the committee in January. So the panel is planning to issue a final report by the end of December.As for hearings, the panel's Democratic chairman, Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, said after the private members' meeting Tuesday in the Capitol that the committee's goal is to hold a hearing Sept. 28, but that members were still discussing whether it would happen at all."We'll we're still in the process of talking," Thompson said. "If it happens, it will be that date. We're not sure at this point."SEE MORE: Trump Foe Liz Cheney Defeated In Wyoming GOP PrimaryMembers of the committee had promised more hearings in September as they wrapped up the series of summer hearings. Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the Republican vice chairwoman, said the committee "has far more evidence to share with the American people and more to gather.""Doors have opened, new subpoenas have been issued and the dam has begun to break," Cheney said at a July 21 hearing that was held in prime time and watched by 17.7 million people. "We have considerably more to do."It's unclear if the hearing would provide a general overview of what the panel has learned or if they would be focused on new information and evidence. The committee conducted several interviews at the end of July and into August with Trump's Cabinet secretaries, some of whom had discussed invoking the constitutional process in the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office after the insurrection.For its witnesses, the panel has already interviewed more than 1,000 people, but lawmakers and staff are still pursuing new threads. The committee recently spoke to several of the Cabinet secretaries, including former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in July and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in August.The committee also wants to get to the bottom of missing Secret Service texts from Jan. 5 to 6, 2021, which could shed further light on Trump's actions during the insurrection, particularly after earlier testimony about his confrontation with security as he tried to join supporters at the Capitol. Thompson said Tuesday that the committee has recently obtained "thousands" of documents from the Secret Service.SEE MORE: Ginni Thomas Emails Urged Electors To Overturn 2020 ElectionThe committee has also pursued an interview with conservative activist Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, who's married to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Lawmakers want to know more about her role in trying to help Trump overturn the election. She contacted lawmakers in Arizona and Wisconsin as part of that effort.Members of the committee are still debating how aggressively to pursue testimony from Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence.Some have questioned whether the committee needs to call Pence, who resisted Trump's pressure to try and block President Biden's certification on Jan. 6. Many of his closest aides have already testified, including Greg Jacob, his top lawyer at the White House who was with him during the insurrection as they hid from rioters who were threatening the vice president's life. Jacobs characterized much of Pence's thought process during the time when Trump was pressuring him.The panel has been in discussions with Pence's lawyers for months, without any discernible progress. Still, the committee could invite Pence for closed-door testimony or ask him to answer written questions.The calculation is different for the former president. Members have debated whether they should call Trump, who is the focus of their probe but also a

In a statement Wednesday, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway’s office said that “in the face of the erosion of such fundamental democratic pillars such as truth, voting rights and the rule of law, this week the City of Madison will shroud the drop boxes in the artwork of internationally known artist Jenny Holzer, who lifts the voice of many in hopeful messages about enduring democracy.”

Work on almost all of the drop boxes had been completed as of Wednesday afternoon, Deputy Mayor Katie Crawley said. The drop box in front of Fire Station No. 1 Downtown is wrapped in black and includes the Sojourner Truth quote “truth is powerful and will prevail” printed in large letters. Holzer, a New York-based artist, developed a 2020 get-out-the-vote campaign using her art, including some that appeared in Madison.

The state’s bipartisan elections commission approved the use of ballot drop boxes in early 2020, and they were rolled out in both conservative and liberal areas of the state.

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The artwork makes the city's position on drop boxes clear, calling the court's decision "a step backward" in making it easier to vote.

But they became a whipping boy for former President Donald Trump and his supporters and other Republican doubters of the 2020 presidential election after Trump narrowly lost Wisconsin. Many Republicans began raising questions about the boxes’ legality, suggesting, without evidence, they could facilitate voter fraud.

Some of the boxes were also paid for with grants from the Mark Zuckerberg-backed Center for Tech and Civic life, which prior to the election poured more than $10 million into municipal coffers to help pay for voting equipment, staffing and supplies aimed at making polling places safer during the pandemic.

From two to four times more CTCL money, per capita, went to the state’s five largest, liberal-leaning municipalities — which has also spurred Republicans to cry foul — but conservative areas got grants as well and CTCL did not reject any Wisconsin municipality’s grant request.

Rhodes-Conway said the state Supreme Court’s decision “is one in a long line of decisions that negatively impacts voters in Wisconsin. ... The ability to vote easily, safely and securely is fundamental to our democratic process. Rather than removing these secure ballot drop boxes, we wanted to transform them to share the powerful words of Sojourner Truth and to convey our community’s belief in democracy, voting rights and the prevailing power of truth.”

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Since the Supreme Court's decision, the boxes have been sealed but not removed.

Conventional political wisdom has long held that Democrats do better in high-turnout elections and Republicans do better in low-turnout elections, and Democrats have long favored policies aimed at making it easier to vote while Republicans have focused on deterring already minuscule levels of voter fraud with policies that tighten voting rules.

A Wisconsin State Journal review last month found that in 22 years of changes to Wisconsin voting laws, there’s little evidence to suggest that stricter voting laws have dampened turnout or that making voting easier has led to more people cheating at the ballot box. Tighter voting rules also do not appear to be associated with less voter fraud.

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