When Warren Walker registered to vote two years ago, he had no idea he would wind up in the middle of a fight over voting rights.
He registered to vote in 2018 and cast his first ballot ever in the race for Wisconsin governor.
"It means being a part of something. It means being able to go with family members to the polls,” Walker said on the front steps of his home on Milwaukee’s north side.
Less than two years later, his voter registration is caught up in a lawsuit against the Wisconsin Elections Commission brought by conservative activists.
Attorneys who brought the suit say it’s designed to keep the voter rolls “clean.”
Walker suspects it’s an attempt to keep people like him from casting a ballot.
"It's like being penalized for nothing,” Walker said.
"It sounds like they're basically trying to run us off from the polls."
Lucas Vebber is an attorney for the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a group that champions conservative causes.
Their suit against the Wisconsin Elections Commission would force the agency to immediately purge more than 200,000 voters from the rolls.
Those voters failed to respond to a letter sent by WEC last fall seeking to verify if they still lived at the address where they are registered.
"What we want to see happen is WEC to follow state law, which is any voter who hasn't responded within 30 days should be deactivated from the voter registration list,” Vebber said.
An Ozaukee County judge ruled in December those voters should be deleted immediately. That ruling was stayed in January as the state Court of Appeals decided to hear the case.
In the meantime, nearly 209,000 voter registrations remain on the voter rolls, but in a state of legal limbo pending the high court’s ruling.
"Any voter who hasn't responded within 30 days should be deactivated from the voter registration list."
Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty
THE ERIC LIST
The list at the center of this fight is created by the Electronic Registration Information Center, commonly known as ERIC.
ERIC is a service shared by 29 states and the District of Columbia to keep voter registration files up to date by comparing voter data with other public records like vehicle registrations.
In October, the Wisconsin Elections Commission used the ERIC list to contact voters who appeared to have moved.
If a voter had indeed moved, they were asked to re-register.
If they had not, the form gave instructions on how they could confirm their address and keep their current registration active.
It’s a process state election officials, ERIC and conservatives agree is not flawless.
Vebber says it doesn't need to be.
“It doesn't require perfect information. The statute says upon receipt of ‘reliable’ information. Certainly I think 95% is reliable,” Vebber said.
Milwaukee elections chief Neil Albrecht disagrees.
"I think something that has a 5 or 10 percent proven error rate should really meet the definition of unreliable data,” Albrecht said.
He supports the position of the state election commission and wants to wait two years before anyone gets deleted, ensuring no one loses the chance to vote in 2020.
“There's a very high risk and probability that someone will not be able to vote and not be able to re-register because they have been erroneously removed from the list,” Albrecht said.
Is Albrecht correct?
The I-TEAM hit the streets to find out.
We visited four wards in the heart of Milwaukee's north side, from Capitol to Hampton, and roughly 35th Street to 48th.
It’s an area home to 513 voters conservatives want immediately deleted from the rolls.
Over the course of two days we tried to contact 114 people in this neighborhood and on the list.
We succeeded 43 times.
Most of the time, the person registered to vote had moved. Their appearance on the list was correct and their voter registration should be deleted.
Then there are people like Brenda Taylor.
Her voter registration on north 39th Street was flagged even though she's voted from this address in 22 elections since 2010.
How did she wind up on this list?
"I have no idea,” she said.
About seven blocks away, we met James Lavelle Birmingham-Parker.
He's been registered to vote from here since 2014, though the ERIC list says he has moved and should be deleted.
When you add in Warren Walker, that's three people who are still where they always were.
Those letters from the state elections commission didn't work.
“If I seen it, I thought it was junk mail, and I don't pay no attention to it. But I don't know if they sent it,” Walker said.
Attorney Lucas Vebber understands there will be mistakes, but said Wisconsin takes an extra step to catch them.
"Same day voter registration is kind of the ultimate guarantee here in our state. It's what sets us apart from every other state, just about, he said.
Though that assumes a voter has their current address on their driver’s license. Or a recent utility bill or paystub in their pocket.
Neil Albrecht explained a document with a current address is required to register all over again.
"I can only speak for myself, those aren't traditionally documents I take with me to vote when I'm already registered,” he said.
Warren Walker says if not for our knock on his door he would have likely shown up on election day without a way to register.
His vote would have been taken away.
"It sounds like they're basically trying to run us off from the polls,” Walker said.
“I already have enough to do. I'm lucky to make it there in time.”
CHECK YOUR REGISTRATION
While no Wisconsin voters will be removed from the polls before the February primary election, they have been urged to check their registration status before they vote.
- Check your voter registration or register to vote online: Click here
- Update your name or address on existing voter registration: Click here
- What documents count as "proof of residence" for voter registration? Click here
- Where is my polling place? Click here
- What is on my ballot? Click here
The I-TEAM reported this story based on publicly available voter registration data purchased from the Wisconsin Elections Commission.