MADISON — More than a quarter-million voters in Wisconsin identified as having moved could be made ineligible to vote before next year's presidential primary election if a complaint filed Wednesday by a conservative law firm is successful.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty argues that the state Elections Commission broke the law when it decided to wait up to two years, rather than 30 days, to make ineligible voters who may have moved. The complaint asks for that decision to be immediately revoked, which could lead to as many as 234,000 voters losing their eligibility until they can confirm their addresses or re-register.
The outcome could affect how many voters are able to cast ballots in both the April presidential primary and November 2020 general election in Wisconsin, a key swing state that both sides are targeting. President Donald Trump narrowly won the state by less than 23,000 votes in 2016.
The concern from liberals is that younger and lower income voters who are more likely to vote Democratic are also more likely to be flagged as movers. The result, they fear, is that more Democrats would be made ineligible than Republicans, making it more difficult for them to vote.
State law requires Wisconsin to join the multi-state Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, but it does not specify how the list of voters is to be maintained, said Meagan Wolfe, the Election Commission's executive director. Wolfe told reporters that she hadn't reviewed the complaint, but that she disagreed with its claim that state law requires the commission to make voters ineligible after 30 days.
Last week, the commission mailed notices to 234,000 voters identified as potentially having moved. They had been flagged by ERIC based on a review of documents from sources such as the Post Office and Division of Motor Vehicles that indicated the person may have moved.
Voters who do not respond to the postcard asking them to confirm their address will be flagged as movers. But instead of being made ineligible to vote 30 days after the mailing, they will have up to two years to confirm their addresses, based on a June vote by the commission.
The conservative group contends in its complaint that the two-year grace period conflicts with a state law that requires such voters to be made ineligible after 30 days. It contends that maintaining an accurate list of who is registered to vote in Wisconsin is a matter of election security.
Under the commission's decision, voters flagged as movers will not be made ineligible ahead of the February primary election for the state Supreme Court race and numerous local offices. It will also mean they will remain eligible for the April presidential primary and spring general election in which a Supreme Court justice will be elected.
Voters who are made inactive will be able to re-register at the polls on election day if they have the required form of ID and proof of residence.
Analiese Eicher, director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Institute, which successfully sued to block limits on voting, said this was an attempt to "bully the Elections Commission into a backdoor voter roll purge."
The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty filed the complaint on behalf of three voters. It warns that if the commission doesn't take immediate action, it will file a lawsuit. Rick Esenberg, the group's president, said in a statement that the commission doesn't have the authority to "invent or amend policy contrary to state law."
Commission staff said in a March memo that the commission had the authority to delay making the voters ineligible beyond 30 days because another state law gives it the ability to create rules maintaining the voter registration list. Staff said in the memo that since no voter would be removed until after the April 2021 election under its policy, there would be time to receive feedback from the Legislature about whether a law change was necessary.
The complaint filed Wednesday, and possible lawsuit, would force a resolution of that question.
Removing voters who may have moved was an issue in 2017 after the commission mailed post cards to 343,000 potential movers and more than 335,000 who did not respond were made ineligible. That led to complaints from voters and election officials, resulting in creation of a supplemental voter list for elections last year. Anyone on that list who came to the polls to vote and affirmed they had not moved were able to vote without having to re-register.
There are about 3.3 million registered voters in Wisconsin out of about 4.5 million people of voting age.