When Wisconsin election officials first pondered the question a few months ago, it ruled unanimously against the computer and for preserving the voters’ registrations, at least temporarily. But what once seemed a matter of electoral housekeeping has morphed into a political cage fight that has sprawled across four courts, split the state’s Elections Commission and spurred intimations of voter suppression and voter fraud.
In other words, it is business as usual in Wisconsin, a partisan hothouse where elections can turn on onionskin margins and every ballot is potential booty in a political death struggle. Memories of President Donald Trump’s victory in Wisconsin in 2016 by fewer than 23,000 votes remain fresh. And as Americans gird for a raucous election year, the scuffle over who stays on Wisconsin’s voting rolls may also portend similar struggles nationwide.
“It’s no surprise we’re seeing these kinds of high-pitched legal battles in battleground states” that can decide national elections, said Daniel A. Smith, an elections scholar at the University of Florida. “The optics of these legal battles can shape people’s confidence in the election. They can affect whether they turn out to vote. They can create wedge issues across different demographic groups.”
On Tuesday, Wisconsin’s election oversight board met again to consider the core issue: Should some 200,000 registered voters flagged by a computer algorithm as having changed their residences be purged from voter lists before the November election if they do not respond to a second mailing, or should the commission wait to decide on its approach?
The session ended with the once-unanimous Elections Commission divided along party lines — three Republicans now supporting purging the voters, three Democrats pushing to keep them. As tensions mounted, one Republican commissioner called his Democratic colleagues’ refusal to clean up the voter rolls “terribly disgusting,” later amending that to “outrageous” amid criticism over the comments.
“We cannot say there is no fraud in elections when there is fraud, cheating and stealing in every other human endeavor,” that commissioner, Robert F. Spindell, said in the meeting in Madison. By not removing voters who probably moved, he said, “we’re opening up the doors to who knows what.”
Democrats on the commission rejected that argument. Rather than improving election security, they said, removing some registrations before November would mostly confuse and disenfranchise eligible voters.
“These are eligible, registered voters,” said Julie M. Glancey, a Democratic commissioner. “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.”
The issue began drawing attention in November when the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative legal foundation, challenged in court the election board’s decision to delay removing names from the voting lists. Because past lists had mistakenly tagged thousands of voters as having moved, the panel reasoned, any purge should be delayed past the November elections to allow time for errors to be sorted out.
That was illegal, the lawsuit argued, since Wisconsin law requires a purge of all voters who fail to respond within 30 days to mailed notices informing them of “reliable” information that they have moved.
In Ozaukee County, a heavily Republican county north of Milwaukee, a judge ordered the voters immediately removed from the rolls — and on Monday, after the Elections Commission deadlocked over doing so, he held the panel’s Democrats in contempt of court.
On Tuesday, an appellate court paused both the purge and the contempt finding, even as other courts were being urged to consider the issue. The state’s League of Women Voters is seeking to block a voter purge in federal court.
The issue has rapidly cleaved along partisan lines. Democrats and other critics charged, and Republicans denied, that the filing was timed not just to confuse voters in November, but to roil a Wisconsin Supreme Court election in April, on the day of the Democratic presidential primary. And critics noted that a lopsided share of people who move — apartment-dwellers, the poor, college students and other young people — tend to vote Democratic.
Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel of the Law and Liberty institute, said the Elections Commission’s delay threatened to undermine public trust in elections, both by ignoring the rules on purges and by leaving the rolls filled with people who no longer have the right to cast ballots.
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“We live in a very polarized time when people, rightly or wrongly, think the results of elections are existential,” Esenberg said in an interview. “There’s a great deal of distrust. It’s important, I think, for elections to enjoy public confidence that they’re being conducted in a way which is not only open but which minimizes the opportunity for fraud and abuse.”
Wisconsin has no notable history of voter fraud. But when ordinary people treat elections as civilization-changing events, he said, it is “implausible and dangerous” to assume that safeguards against fraud are adequate.
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To critics, however, the suit was in keeping with efforts by Wisconsin Republicans to make it harder for residents to register and vote. Among the changes in Wisconsin, Republicans approved requirements that voters present identification at the polls. Such efforts were made in the name of upholding election integrity, but they also hit Democratic constituencies especially hard.
Party leaders have not shied from making that connection. In an appearance on a conservative radio talk show in 2018, Brad Schimel, the state’s Republican attorney general at the time, asked listeners whether they “really, honestly” were sure that Trump would have carried the state in 2016 “if we didn’t have voter ID to keep Wisconsin’s elections clean and honest.”
On Tuesday, Esenberg said that his institute’s lawsuit was not aimed at depressing Democratic turnout, and that predictions of a purge’s effect had been overblown.
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Although the roster of names to be removed exceeds 200,000 voters, he said, the vast bulk have been accurately tagged. They are voters who left the state or moved to new municipalities, making them legally ineligible to vote from their old homes.
On the other hand, the Elections Commission has estimated that nearly 90,000 of those on the list moved within their own towns and cities, and under state law should not be purged.
Erroneously flagged voters, Esenberg said, would have many ways to get back on the rolls by reregistering online or at a clerk’s office, or by appearing on Election Day and providing proof of residence.
Critics counter that thousands of legitimate voters should not be forced to leap through bureaucratic hoops to counter a threat of fraud that experts say is close to nonexistent.
Mark L. Thomsen, one of the Democratic commissioners who had been held in contempt, said the effort to prune the voter rolls was a way to “address a problem that doesn’t exist.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .