Wisconsin Appeals Court Temporarily Halts Purge of More Than 200,000 from Voter Roll

Nicole Rojas SAVE THIS
A woman at the Madison Farmer’s Market holds a voter registration sign from the League of Women Voters. (Shutterstock)

Wisconsin Democrats scored an important win on January 14 in a fight over more than 200,000 people on the state’s voter rolls. An appeals court ordered those voters be kept on the state rolls a day after an Ozaukee County judge ruled election officials were in contempt of court for refusing to remove those names. 

The voting status of nearly 209,000 people are currently at stake. In October 2019, the Wisconsin Elections Commission notified more than 230,000 people that they must update their voter registration or confirm they had not moved to remain on roll. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the commission planned to remove those people from the state’s rolls in 2021 if they did not respond. 

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a conservative organization, spearheaded the lawsuit claiming the Wisconsin Elections Commission broke the law when it refused to remove voters from the rolls who did not respond within 30 days to an October letter alerting them they may be removed. The law firm filed the suit on behalf of three Wisconsin voters not affected by the voter purge, Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty attorney Lucas Vebber explained to The North Star.  

However, the elections commission said it wanted to wait until after the upcoming presidential election before removing voters from the registration roll, according to NBC News. On January 13, Judge Paul Malloy found the state’s election commission in contempt of court after some of its members failed to comply with a December order to immediately purge those names from the voter registration rolls. 

Malloy said that if the Wisconsin Elections Commission failed to comply, three of its six commissioners would be fined $250 a day until they did. The commission would also be fined $50 a day for each day it did not comply, CBS News reported. 

However, that decision was temporarily overruled by District 4 Court of Appeals Judges Michael Fitzpatrick, JoAnne Kloppenburg and Jennifer Nashold. The appeals court ordered Wisconsin keep the names on its rolls, while one of the judges also blocked Malloy’s contempt findings. 

Vebber told The North Star that the appeals process is ongoing and it is unclear how long it will take. He added that the case is essentially at a standstill. 

“What is true yesterday is true today,” Rick Esenberg, president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, said in a statement. “The Wisconsin Elections Committee isn’t following state law and we look forward to making that case in the Court of Appeals.”

Why It Matters

The voting status of the more than 200,000 people in the closely divided state is particularly important ahead of the 2020 presidential election. In 2016, Republican Donald Trump narrowly beat Democrat Hillary Clinton by less than 23,000 votes. 

Voters targeted in this purge primarily come from Democratic areas of the state, including Milwaukee and locales with college campuses, according to NBC News. Democrats claim the voter purge unfairly targets their voters and creates an unnecessary burden on them. The left also claims that forcing voters to re-register will ultimately impact voter turnout. 

However, Republicans argue that they just want to prevent people from voting from their old addresses if they have moved.

“Are we going to allow, in the state of Wisconsin, 200,000-plus people that should not be on the voting rolls because they’ve moved, they don’t exist, whatever?” Commissioner Robert Spindell (R) said at a commission meeting on January 14, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “It’s a Republican-Democrat issue, the Dems like to have huge numbers of people on the list and the Republicans like to have clean lists and that’s a problem that I don’t think we’ll be able to overcome.” 

Commissioner Julie Glancey (D) responded: “These are eligible, registered voters. They are not by any stretch of the imagination illegal or anything else. They are true people who registered to vote and are eligible to register to vote. They may or may not have moved.” 

Vebber also pushed back on the notion that re-registering would be an unnecessary burden on voters who may be wrongly removed from the voter registration rolls in Wisconsin. 

“I just like to make clear the point that Wisconsin is unique compared to other states in how easy it is to register to vote here,” he said, “I think that’s an important point to make here. That anybody who finds themselves deactivated doesn’t mean they can’t vote, they just simply have to re-register on election day, which is a relatively straightforward process.”  

This is not the case in other states that routinely purge their voter rolls. In Georgia, like in many states, voters must register to vote at least a month before any election. 

Voter Purges In Other States

  • Georgia: Data cited by the Brennan Center shows that Georgia purged 10.6 percent of voters between September 2016 and September 2018, just prior to the gubernatorial election. In December 2019, election officials in Georgia purged nearly 309,000 voter registrations from the state’s voter rolls. The voter purge was challenged by Fair Fight Action, a voting rights advocacy group led by Democrat Stacey Abrams, according to PBS. Later that month, federal Judge Steve C. Jones ruled that Fair Fight Action failed to prove that Georgia secretary of state’s decision to remove inactive voters from the rolls violated the U.S. Constitution. 
  • Indiana: A federal appeals court upheld a block on Indiana’s controversial voter registration purge law in August 2019. In 2016 and 2017, the state conducted massive voter purges, removing nearly 500,000 people from the state’s voter registration roll, according to reporting by journalist Greg Palast
  • Florida: The Sunshine State continues to be one of the leading states purging its voter rolls. Florida Board of Elections data cited by the Brennan Center shows that between December 2016 and September 2018, Florida purged more than 7 percent of its voters.  

How to Check Your Registration Status in Wisconsin

Checking your status is an incredibly important and also a relatively easy step to take before heading to the voting booths. Vote.org has an easy tool that allows people to input their name, address and date of birth to find out if they are registered in their state.

Wisconsin has a dedicated website for citizens to check their registration status as well as register to vote at myvote.wi.gov. Reid Magney, a spokesperson for the elections commission, told The North Star that voters who do not find themselves in the voter rolls online should not panic. Instead they should reach out to the municipal court office or the elections commission directly for a broader search. 

Wisconsin voters who were initially flagged will likely be kept on the voter registration rolls until April 2021, Magney said. Those names will be listed with a watermark during the elections, which will require them to confirm they have not moved or to register again if they have moved. Wisconsin allows for Election Day registration. 

More information on what you need to know regarding registration to vote before the primaries is available here.  


About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.

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