Deactivated voters then vs. now: Why 205,000 voters were removed from the rolls without any fanfare

Posted: 5:20 AM, Oct 27, 2021
Updated: 2021-10-27 23:37:30-04
Breakdown of deactivated voters

MILWAUKEE — A year after the most contentious presidential collection of our time, more than 205,000 voters were purged from Wisconsin’s voter rolls. Two years earlier, outcry from both sides of the aisle grabbed headlines about whether or not to deactivate a group of 232,000 voters but in 2021, there wasn’t so much as an email from either side about the Wisconsin Elections Commission deactivating this list. So where was the outcry this year, when the office of the President wasn’t at risk?

“When the list was first brought up in 2019 going into the 2020 election, there was a lot of concern,” Barry Burden, Director of Elections Research at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, said. “You heard outcry and eventually lawsuits to try to move things along. But that’s completely different from the regular list maintenance that the state has done for a number of years.”

Wolfe on 4YM vs ERIC

The voters the WEC deactivated in late July was mostly a part of four-year maintenance (4YM). Nearly 85 percent of the voters deactivated in July had not voted in either the 2020 or 2016 general elections. These voters were entirely different than a similar list of 232,000 voters at risk of being purged in the fall of 2019.

“After every November general election, we take a look at the voter rolls and we see who has not participated in four years,” Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator, said. “Those folks are then sent a postcard saying, ‘you haven’t voted in four years. Would you like to stay on the list?’ If we don’t hear from you in 30 days, you’ll be deactivated. That’s a completely separate process than ERIC because it’s specifically spelled out in the statute that, if you don’t respond within 30 days, you will be deactivated.”

But the additional 14 percent, 31,854, were from that contentious 2019 list.

4YM Deactivations110,728Sent 2021 4YM mailer and did not respond
4YM Undeliverable Deactivations62,8532021 4YM mailer returned undeliverable by the U.S. Postal Service
2019 ERIC Mover Deactivations31,854Last remaining members of 2019 ERIC Movers list

Wolfe mentioned a service, referred to as ERIC or the Electronic Registration Information Center. Before we understand where we’ve arrived, we need to know where we came from. In a Tarantino-esque storytelling technique, let’s look back to the fall of 2019. The ERIC Movers list had flagged 232,579 people who had potentially moved in the state of Wisconsin. That list was created with help from the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles and the United States Postal Service. Basically, if any resident had an interaction with those departments that resulted in a change of address, their voter registration was flagged as needing an update.

The WEC had no intention of deactivating these voters at the time, but the Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty (WILL) felt the agency had an obligation to do so.

“The WEC sent a postcard to each voter on the movers list and gave [the flagged voters] 30 days to respond,” Lucas Vebber, an attorney at WILL, said. “If they didn’t respond in 30 days, we believed state law required them to be deactivated from the voter rolls.”

Veeber on Deactivating Voters

The concern with deactivating these voters was about the list’s accuracy. ERIC, while a useful tool, was criticized for how many voters may have been erroneously flagged as a mover.

“The ERIC process is really helpful for the state to identify who has moved and who has died,” Burden said. “But we also know that it’s not perfect. Some of those records are inconsistent or there are some errors and those turned up a couple of years ago.”

The WEC gave some examples of where ERIC may miss the mark. If a vehicle is registered at a different address for a child, or a vacation home has a separate address than a voter’s home address, ERIC may flag those people incorrectly.

So over the course of time from 2019 to 2021, the WEC continued sending out postcards and updating the ERIC list.

Five months later, in February of 2020, the list updated 36,548 potential movers. Two months later, another 28,367 potential movers were removed from the ERIC list. Ultimately, before deactivating any ERIC Movers, the WEC was able to update 201,316 voters from the ERIC Movers list. That’s 201,316 people who WILL felt should have been deactivated 30 days after the postcards were sent by WEC and went unreturned.

“Certainly, information that comes from ERIC is reliable information, which is what the statute requires,” Vebber said. “Ultimately, with the 2019 list, it was approximately 93 percent accurate. That’s 93 percent on the list that ultimately had moved, never responded or hadn’t moved. That’s reliable information.”

The I-Team looked into the accuracy of the list in February of 2020, before the general election, and again in the last month.

Back in February of 2020, on Milwaukee’s Northside, the I-Team found three people out of 43 who responded still lived at the location ERIC had flagged. They had been incorrectly flagged and would have faced more hurdles in voting in elections, with no idea why.

Twenty months later, after the updated list of ERIC Movers had been deactivated, the I-Team hit the streets again. In voting wards in the Sherman Park neighborhood, where 155 ERIC Movers were deactivated, the I-Team found one person who still lived at the same address and was flagged incorrectly. The I-Team also checked the city with the second highest number of deactivated ERIC Movers in West Allis. None of the people who responded there had been flagged incorrectly. In total, the I-Team found 1 out of 30 respondents were flagged incorrectly.

Door Knock Sequence

According to the WEC, 16,390 people responded between October of 2019 and May of 2021 to postcards saying ERIC flagged them incorrectly and they still lived at the address listed.

“We now get that data on a quarterly basis, rather than every 18 months,” Wolfe said. “So that means we’re going to be contacting those voters that have potentially moved more closely to the actual move or that actual transaction that they’ve done with a DMV. Hopefully that will lead to them being able to re-register in a time period where it’s a little more relevant to them. In the past, it was more like every 18 months that we were sending out these mailers and so we’re hoping by sending them out quarterly, it’ll be more relevant to the voter.”

In total, the ERIC Movers list was very accurate. The list had 136,800 people (58.8 percent) respond to update their registration at a new address. Another 10,083 records (4.34 percent) were inactive and another 37,452 (16.1 percent) had not voted in the 2020 or 2016 general elections, so they were deactivated unrelated to their ERIC Movers list status. Ultimately, the 31,854 voters deactivated in July were given many opportunities to update; several postcards mailed to them and elections to vote in.

“Even prior to the court ruling, the commission’s process was to first send a mailer to voters letting them know, you may have moved,” Wolfe said. “Then, that voter still appeared on the poll book but had what we call a watermark. The watermark said, have you moved? When those voters showed up at the polls, they were asked by the poll worker and if the voter said yes, they’d be prompted to reregister at their new address. If they said no, then they would be able to sign the poll book affirming that they still lived there and be able to receive a ballot at that address. Voters were given multiple opportunities to affirm their address to say, I live here and I want to stay on the poll books at this address.”

“We know that it’s not perfect,” Burden said of ERIC. “Some of those records are inconsistent or there are some errors. ERIC is a really helpful tool for election officials because it does at least put a flag on those records for people who might have died or might have moved. But I think the Commission made the right decision in the summer of 2019 when they voted not to take immediate action. It should not be rushed.”

“We believed they couldn’t wait 12 to 24 months,” Vebber said. “We believed they had to do it in 30 days.”

The Wisconsin Supreme Court eventually voted against WILL’s suit, keeping voters on the rolls for the 2020 election. The most recent list of deactivated voters was processed at the direction of the WEC, however Wolfe says that is unlikely to happen in the future unless there are additional rulings directing them to.

“Only the local clerk does that,” Wolfe said. “Moving forward, the new process to recognize that only the local clerk has the authority to deactivate those records. The local clerks decided what they do with the ERIC Movers list information, just like they would with an obituary or something else.”

While most of Wisconsin won't be voting this November, it's as good a time as any to check your voter status at

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