Purge of 234,000 Wisconsin voter registrations challenged in federal, state court
Nearly 900 Lincoln County voters affected
By Jalen Maki
Tomahawk Leader Co-Editor
WISCONSIN – After Ozaukee County Circuit Court Judge Paul V. Malloy ordered the state to remove roughly 234,000 Wisconsin voters from the rolls Friday, Dec. 13, the effort is being challenged in both federal and state court.
Malloy’s decision comes after a letter was sent in October from the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission to about 234,000 voters, roughly 7% of registered voters, who the Commission believed may have moved. The list of voters who had potentially changed addresses came from a “Movers Report” from the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a “non-profit organization with the sole mission of assisting states to improve the accuracy of America’s voter rolls and increase access to voter registration for all eligible citizens,” according to the organization’s website.
ERIC compares voter registration information with records from state DMVs, the U.S. Postal Service and the Social Security Administration, and seeks to help states identify people who are eligible to vote but are unregistered, as well as people who have moved or died. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia participate in ERIC.
In the October letter, recipients were asked to either update their voter registrations if their address had changed or notify election officials if they hadn’t moved. The Elections Commission planned to spend the next 12 to 24 months assessing individuals who did not respond to the letter. If officials were to make an “individualized determination” that there was “sufficient reliable information” that a voter had moved, their registration would be “deactivated,” according to the Commission.
A conservative public interest law firm, The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, represented three voters from Ozaukee, Washington and Waukesha counties who sued the Elections Commission, citing a state law that says “Upon receipt of reliable information” that a voter has changed addresses, either the Commission or municipal clerk must send the voter a letter stating they believed the voter had moved, and that the voter must be “deactivated” if a response isn’t received within 30 days.
The lawsuit claims the Movers Report is considered “reliable information,” and that the October letters were the beginning of the 30-day timeframe recipients were given to respond.
Malloy granted a writ of mandamus, an order from a court to an inferior government official ordering the government official to properly fulfill their official duties or correct an abuse of discretion, stating he was convinced the Elections Commission had a clear, positive, plain legal duty to purge the letter recipients from the voter rolls.
On Tuesday, Dec. 17, Malloy filed a formal written order he had granted orally on Friday Dec. 13, stating the Elections Commission must remove the voter registrations under state law.
Challenges in state, federal court
The same day as Malloy filed his written order, Attorney General Josh Kaul filed a notice on behalf of the Elections Commission that it would appeal the ruling, and would seek to stay Malloy’s order.
The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, a “nonpartisan, grassroots, political organization established in 1920 that advocates for informed and active participation in government” according to the organization’s website, filed a suit in federal court in an attempt to halt the purge, asking a federal judge to stop Malloy’s order to remove the registrations immediately, and require the Commission to send new notices to the affected voters informing them of the Commission’s plans to purge their registrations, along with informing the recipients how to keep their registrations from being removed, something the October letters did not do.
The League of Women Voters had sought to intervene in the Institute for Law & Liberty’s lawsuit against the Elections Commission. Malloy denied the petition.
Kaul and the League of Women Voters are among those concerned that people who haven’t moved may be incorrectly removed from the rolls.
According to the Elections Commission, 887 letters were mailed in Lincoln County, 284 in Forest, 626 in Langlade, 4,370 in Marathon, 1,375 in Oneida, 352 in Price, and 615 in Vilas.
As of Dec. 5, about 60,000 of the roughly 234,000 letters sent were returned as undeliverable, and 2,300 people had responded saying their addresses hadn’t changed, according to the Elections Commission. 16,500 had registered to vote at new addresses.
The voter purge and subsequent legal actions come ahead of the 2020 presidential election, in which Wisconsin will play a major role as a key battleground state.
President Donald J. Trump carried Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016, giving him a crucial Electoral College victory on his way to winning the White House. Tony Evers won in the 2018 race for Governor by fewer than 30,000 votes.
Although the state’s Democratic bastions of Madison and Milwaukee account for 14% of voters, 23% of the letters were sent to voters there. 55% of the letters were mailed to municipalities where Hillary Clinton had out-polled President Donald J. Trump.
How to register to vote
Residents who are not registered to vote, or voters who were removed from the voter rolls, whether correctly or mistakenly, can register or re-register online at https://myvote.wi.gov/en-us/, at their clerk’s office or at the polls on election day.