Wisconsin election officials deadlock on culling voter rolls

Voting sign

Voting sign

MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin Elections Commission deadlocked Monday on whether to comply with a judge’s order to remove anywhere from 144,000 to more than 200,000 names from the state’s voter rolls before a higher court can weigh in — a move that could influence the outcome of next year’s presidential election in the key swing state.

The commission’s three Republicans wanted to remove the voters in question from the rolls but were blocked by the panel’s three Democrats, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

The affected voters are in heavily Democratic areas of Wisconsin, a battleground state in the 2020 presidential election. President Donald Trump narrowly won Wisconsin in 2016.

The judge ruled in favor of a conservative law firm that sued to strike the names from the rolls immediately, ordering the Elections Commission to immediately deactivate the voter registrations of people who were sent a 2019 movers mailing and either did not respond or whose letter was returned as undeliverable.

Election officials said they initially sent letters to about 234,000 voters but later lowered that number to about 232,500. More recently, they were given a new estimate that a smaller number of voters, about 144,000, could be in jeopardy of being taken off the rolls.

At issue is a state law dealing with voters who move from one Wisconsin community to another. As many as 88,000 of the voters who were sent letters had apparently moved within the same community, the commission’s executive director, Meagan Wolfe, said.

Those voters did not move to a new community, so they may be at less risk of coming off the rolls. Wolfe stressed that the estimate of 88,000 voters is rough because mailing addresses do not always correspond to the city where someone lives. But if the estimate is accurate, the number of voters most at risk of being removed would be about 144,000, rather than more than 230,000.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice has asked a state Appeals Court to put the judge’s ruling on hold.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which brought the lawsuit, is trying to bypass the appeals court and have the state Supreme Court, which is controlled by conservatives, immediately take the case. The state Supreme Court has not yet decided whether to take the case.

In a statement, the Wisconsin Elections Commission said it did not pass any motion directing staff to take action on the movers mailing list.

“This means the Commission will await further direction from the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of Wisconsin. When those courts provide direction, the Commission will hold another meeting to discuss action to comply with the ruling,” the commission said.

Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel of WILL, called it “astonishing” that “once again, the Wisconsin Elections Commission could not agree to follow a straightforward court order.”

“Court orders are not suggestions. They are not suspended because the losing party has appealed. They are to be followed,” Esenberg said in a statement.

Democrats fear forcing voters whose registration was nullified to re-register would create a burden on them and hurt turnout in next year’s election. Republicans argue that removing the voters would ensure that the rolls are not full of people who shouldn’t be voting.

The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin also has filed a federal lawsuit to stop the purge. That lawsuit argues that it would be a violation of constitutional due process rights to deactivate the registrations of the voters without proper notice.

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