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Elections Commission votes to alert more than 100,000 voters their registration may be deactivated
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Elections Commission votes to alert more than 100,000 voters their registration may be deactivated

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Voter Purge Wisconsin

People vote Nov. 6, 2018, at Jamestown Town Hall in Kieler.

Following a grueling daylong meeting, the Wisconsin Elections Commission on Thursday voted to send postcards to more than 100,000 voters suspected of moving, but stopped short of mandating the deactivation of their voter registration if they don’t respond, as the commission has attempted to do in the past.

The commission’s unanimous action, a compromise, is one of the first major steps it has taken in the wake of a major Wisconsin Supreme Court decision handed down in April that ruled the commission is not required to deactivate voters it has suspected of changing addresses, as a conservative legal group had argued.

Even so, commissioners failed to come to an agreement on what to do about the nearly 70,000 remaining voters flagged in 2019 suspected of moving but who remain active registered voters, the same group at issue in the Supreme Court case.

Athletic Board and search committee chair Pete Miller and UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank respond to a question about the 35 applicants for the school's athletic director opening at a news conference Wednesday, June 2, 2021, at the Kohl Center.

The commission plans to send its first of three scheduled postcards in late June to 103,010 voters suspected of moving. The postcard will inform the voters that data from the Division of Motor Vehicles or U.S. Postal Service indicates they may have moved, and that their voter registration may be deactivated if they don’t affirm their current address or register at a new one.

Elections officials sent the letters based on information obtained through the nonprofit Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, which flags potential movers. The commission reviews the information to ensure accuracy. This is the same system the commission has used to flag potential movers in 2017 and 2019, the latter of which ended in the Supreme Court lawsuit.

ERIC obtains data from a variety of sources to flag voters who may have moved, such as Wisconsin motor vehicle records, voter registration and motor vehicle records from participating states, along with the National Change of Address database from the U.S. Postal Service.

A corresponding memo the commission will send this summer to municipal clerks in charge of local election administration indicates it will be up to their discretion to deactivate voters flagged as potential movers, or to keep them on the rolls. If clerks choose to remove such voters, however, they would need to send a 30-day notice letter to the voter.

“I think probably this is the best we can do with the (voter roll maintenance), but it’s not as strong as I would like it to be,” said Republican commissioner Robert Spindell.

Thursday’s vote affecting movers WEC flagged this year is a step back from a similar effort in 2019, when the commission sent postcards to about 232,000 potential movers it flagged that year and planned to suspend the registrations after April 2021 of those who didn’t respond. According to a commission memo, 69,306 people who received the 2019 mailing hadn’t responded as of May, indicating they likely have moved, but still remain on the rolls.

About 30,000 of the potential movers are expected to be deactivated in late July as part of a separate, routine procedure to clear the voting rolls of people who haven’t voted in the past four years.

For now, at least, nothing is expected to be done about any remaining movers from the 2019 mailing who continue to be registered after Republicans failed on Thursday to approve a motion to deactivate them.

Instead, commissioners focused their compromise motion on this year’s new mailing, which will be sent out June 30, Sept. 30 and Dec. 31. The 100,000 some recipients of this year’s mailing are not part of the 2019 movers list.

The motion to move forward with the 2021 mailing followed a series of failed attempts by the commission’s Republicans to approve language that would direct local clerks or the WEC itself to deactivate suspected 2021 movers who don’t respond to the postcard. Republicans believed such a measure was allowed under the Supreme Court’s April ruling in the voter purge case, but Democrats said it would be against the law and feared it would disenfranchise voters and make it harder to vote, especially given that the system used to identify people who have moved is not completely accurate.

“The commission nowhere has the authority to remove a batch of voters simply because they had the misfortune of having a data match,” said commission chairperson Ann Jacobs, a Democrat.

Far from over

The commission’s action on Thursday also indicated the legal battle over the maintenance of Wisconsin’s voter rolls may be far from over, with the 3-3 partisan commission failing to reach a consensus on what the Supreme Court’s decision actually means in practice, specifically on the question of whether the WEC has the power, if it chooses, to deactivate voters suspected of moving.

Republicans on the commission said the court’s decision appears to allow the WEC to remove those suspected of moving, while Democrats, reversing themselves from previous years’ positions, said that it doesn’t.

Democratic commissioner Mark Thomsen said he regrets his previous vote to allow for the deactivation of voters, while some Republican commissioners said the courts have left the voter rolls issue more clouded than before lawsuits were ever filed.

“I think the situation is much less clear after the litigation,” said Republican commissioner Dean Knudson. “I think we did a better job maintaining clean lists before the litigation than after the litigation, and that doesn’t speak highly for our whole legal system.”

Underlying case

The case that led to April’s Supreme Court voter purge ruling was brought by plaintiffs represented by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL). Republicans wanted the Supreme Court to purge voters suspected of moving in order to maintain clean voter rolls. WILL argued the state should keep its voter rolls orderly by removing voters who may no longer reside at the addresses indicated on their voter registrations.

The Elections Commission, represented by the state Department of Justice, argued it was under no duty to treat as reliable the information it received about voters who may have moved.

The WEC wanted to wait until after the presidential election before removing anyone.

Nearly 17,000 people on the list had not moved and registered at their same address, more than 7% of the total, a commission report found.

A post-election report compiled by the WEC found the number of voters initially identified as possibly having moved in Wisconsin shrunk by two-thirds before the November presidential election, and none of the people still on the list cast ballots in 2020.

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