Wisconsin Voting Rights Group Sues to Delay Roll Purges

MADISON, Wis. (CN) – In a continuation of a fight over the state’s electoral rolls, a Wisconsin voting rights group sued the state elections board in federal court Tuesday to try to stop the purge of 234,000 names from the state’s list of registered voters.

The spat over the Badger State’s voting rolls began last month when three voters represented by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, or WILL, sued the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission, saying it violated state law by refusing to deactivate registrations of voters who do not respond within 30 days to formal notices inquiring about possible address changes.

The Wisconsin State Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin.

The elections commission mailed the notices referred to in that suit to approximately 234,000 voters in mid-October but had decided to wait until 2021 to update any flagged inconsistencies in the voter lists, a precaution taken partly because of a 2017 glitch that triggered the removal of tens of thousands of voters.

WILL’s suit sought to enforce the 30-day limit, which it contends the commission must adhere to according to Wisconsin law.

Ozaukee County Circuit Court Judge Paul Malloy agreed with WILL Friday and issued a writ of mandamus forcing the elections commission to change the registration status of every voter who did not respond to its October letters within the 30-day timeframe, although he admitted that he did not know how the commission would manage the task.

The commission announced Tuesday that it plans to appeal Malloy’s decision, which drew demonstrators to Milwaukee’s City Hall early this week to protest what they viewed as voter suppression.

The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin joined the fracas anew with its federal suit on Tuesday after Malloy denied the group’s motion to intervene in WILL’s lawsuit Friday.

The suit alleges due process violations in the notices sent out to voters and in the fact that they may not know that their voter registrations are being deactivated. The suit claims that “these 234,039 voters, whom the commission suspected of having moved to a new residential address based on a flawed data set … were not given notice that they were facing removal from the rolls; nor were they provided notice of the timeline within which to take action to remain registered to vote in Wisconsin.”

Twenty-eight states including Wisconsin, plus the District of Columbia, are enrolled with the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a nationwide database that helps states keep their voter roll information accurate. The database flags people who moved, which the WEC then reviews internally for accuracy.

The League’s suit highlights the potential unreliability of ERIC’s data, which all told reflected a 7% margin of error in the list of 2017 movers, according to the complaint. 

The League’s lawsuit also stresses the fact that Wisconsin is the only ERIC-member state that will remove a voter from its rolls within 30 days if there is reliable information that said voter has moved to a different part of the state.

The League is represented by Jon Sherman, Cecilia Aguilera and Michelle Cohen with the Fair Elections Center in Washington, D.C., as well as Doug Poland with Rathje Woodward.

The voting rights group’s suit states that purging the 234,000 voters from the voter rolls would constitute a Fourteenth Amendment due process violation, in part because the commission’s notices did not do enough to direct voters on how and when to update their registrations but also because voters who received the notices were assured they could confirm their registration addresses by voting in the next election. 

If the purge occurs immediately, the registrations may be cancelled before the voters have a chance to confirm them.

Tuesday’s suit asks for a federal judge to block Malloy’s order calling for the immediate removal of the 234,000 possible movers from the voter rolls via temporary restraining order or permanent injunction.

It also asks that the court require the commission to immediately mail out fresh notices to the affected voters informing them of their imminent removal from the voter rolls, steps they need to take to avoid being removed, consequences of failing to confirm their address and a clear timeline for deactivation.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.

The urgency of clearing up the state’s voter rolls is heightened by several key elections heading into 2020, including local primaries in February and a crucial election in April for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. That election coincides with the presidential primary. 

If the recent drama over the state’s voter rolls is any indication, Wisconsin’s status as a pivotal battleground state will intensify throughout a 2020 election season in which Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, is slated to host the Democratic National Convention in July.

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