PORT WASHINGTON, Wis. (CN) – With the backing of a prominent conservative advocacy group, three voters from the Milwaukee suburbs sued Wisconsin elections officials Wednesday in an attempt to make them update the state’s voter rolls and purge thousands of voters who may have moved.
The lawsuit – brought by voters represented by Richard Esenberg, founder and president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, or WILL – contends that the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission, or WEC, is violating state statutes by refusing to deactivate registrations of voters who do not respond to formal notices inquiring about possible address changes within 30 days.
WEC mailed the notices referred to in the complaint to approximately 234,000 voters a little over 30 days ago.
The lawsuit, filed in Ozaukee County Circuit Court, comes one month after WILL filed a separate complaint with WEC directly, which the board chose to ignore as untimely.
“Despite the mandatory language in the statute, the defendants have decided that if voters do not respond to the notice that WEC would not change the voter’s registration from eligible to ineligible status until somewhere between 12 months and 24 months after the notice was mailed and not responded to, rather than in 30 days as required by the statute,” according to Wednesday’s lawsuit.
The complaint states WEC is overstepping its authority by setting aside the state law that lays out the 30-day timeframe in favor of its own internal timeframe, blaming the agency for essentially writing state election law on its own accord.
The suit asks for a writ of mandamus forcing WEC to change the registration status for every voter who did not respond to its October letters, among other measures.
In response to a request for comment Wednesday, a representative with WEC pointed to an October statement from Administrator Meagan Wolfe, who said the commission believes it is in line with the law regarding keeping up-to-date voter rolls and deactivating ineligible voters, a process for which it is free to set its own timeframe.
Wisconsin is one of 29 states enrolled with the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, a nationwide database that helps states keep their voter roll information accurate. One thing ERIC does is flag people who moved, which the WEC then reviews internally for accuracy.
Reacting to WILL’s lawsuit Wednesday, liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now condemned the suit as a tactic to remove as many as 230,000 registered Wisconsinites from voter polls before upcoming elections in spring 2020.
The liberal group says the suit is WILL’s attempt to influence the outcome for Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly, a conservative who is up for reelection in April and has received thousands of dollars in donations from WILL’s board members.
“There is no low to which the right wing won’t go to rig the rules to try to get the election result they want,” One Wisconsin Now Executive Director Analiese Eicher said. “They think fewer voters showing up in spring 2020 will help them elect Dan Kelly and they know what they’re doing will result in legal, registered voters getting thrown off poll lists.”
That has happened before, as One Wisconsin Now points out. In 2017, a voter list maintenance program erroneously triggered the removal of tens of thousands of voters, and this glitch is part of WEC’s rationale for extending the deadline for voters to respond to its notices.
The main issue to resolving the suit is one of statutory interpretation, according to Michael Morley, a professor at the Florida State University College of Law.
“The two interpretations are between a broad statute that establishes voter maintenance,” from which WILL gets its 30-day time limit, “and a narrower one that deals with Wisconsin’s participation in ERIC,” he said. The latter does not indicate any timeframe in which WEC is mandated to update the state’s voter rolls.
Morley said in an interview Wednesday that it comes down to canons of statutory interpretation. The interpretation in favor of the ERIC provision would follow what Morley referred to as the principle that “the specific governs the general.” Morley offered that “to the extent that there is a conflict between the two, courts typically lean toward the specifically tailored statute.”
But, Morley pointed out that WILL could argue for what is called the canon against implied repeals, which would basically posit that WEC should apply and enforce both statutes in securing the state’s voter registration data.
The case, according to Morley, may boil down to harmonizing these two different provisions passed at two different times.
WEC has stated that it intends to discuss its process for movers again at its next meeting on Dec. 2.