Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

The Fight to Clean Up Wisconsin’s Voter Rolls

Residents head to the polls to take part in early voting in the presidential election at the Milwaukee Municipal Building in Milwaukee, Wisc., October 29, 2012. (Darren Hauck/Reuters)

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty is taking its fight for clean voter rolls to the state’s Supreme Court. The group was forced to file suit last year on behalf of three Wisconsin voters when the Wisconsin Elections Commission ignored state law and refused to remove hundreds of thousands of outdated registrations.

That’s a major problem heading into an election year, and one that shouldn’t take months of contentious litigation to resolve. Accurate voter rolls are crucial for secure, efficient, and fair elections.

Wisconsin maintains its voter rolls using data from an interstate partnership known as the Elections Registration Information Center. ERIC identifies voters who use an address that differs from their voter registration in official government transactions. In other words, the voters themselves report to the government that they now reside someplace else.

ERIC data is widely regarded as reliable, and under Wisconsin law, “[u]pon receipt of reliable information” that a voter no longer resides at his registered address, a notice must be sent to confirm that voter’s residency. If the voter does not respond within 30 days, that same law mandates that the election board “shall” deactivate the registration.

Yet, per the lawsuit, the commission flagrantly disregarded this obligation. In June, as the commission was preparing to send notices to 234,000 people flagged by ERIC as “movers,” it decided that no matter whether it received a response, it would not deactivate out-of-date registrations for one or two years.

In December, Judge Paul Malloy agreed that the commission had flouted the law and ordered it to proceed with the cleanup. Amazingly, the elections commission opted instead to convene a meeting to consider whether to comply; it deadlocked, with three Democrats voting against and three Republicans voting for the court-ordered cleanup. Judge Malloy then held the commission and several of its members in contempt.

If only that were the end of this legal drama. The state appealed Malloy’s earlier ruling, and with Wisconsin’s February elections coming up fast, WILL sought to bring the case straight to the state Supreme Court. But the justices split 3–3 on whether to grant immediate review, leaving the case to wind its way through the courts, and last week the Court of Appeals stayed Judge Malloy’s ruling and ground the cleanup to a halt. Now, WILL is appealing to the Wisconsin Supreme Court seeking to have the stay lifted so that voter rolls can be cleaned up in time for this year’s elections.

Predictably, activists on the left are demonizing WILL’s effort as “voter suppression” and claim it’s trying to cancel people’s voting rights with insidious-sounding “voter purges.” But as WILL points out in its lawsuit, in all likelihood these registrations are for voters who are already casting their ballots someplace else. And if someone’s registration is improperly canceled, they can re-register — even on Election Day.

Wisconsin elections begin in just a few weeks. Absent a judicial breakthrough, voters will head to the polls knowing their voter rolls are riddled with errors — and that their state is fighting to keep it that way. That’s indefensible, but it’s a clear sign of what lies ahead for election integrity efforts nationwide in 2020.

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