MADISON, Wis — A Wisconsin judge will consider Friday whether to immediately toss out the registrations of up to 234,000 voters in a lawsuit brought by conservatives that could make it more difficult for people to vote next year in the key swing state.
At issue is whether the state elections commission should have invalidated the registration of voters who were flagged as having potentially moved and didn't respond to an October mailing within 30 days.
The case is important for both Republicans and Democrats ahead of the 2020 presidential race in narrowly divided Wisconsin, which President Donald Trump won by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016. Liberals fear the voters who could be purged are more likely to be Democrats. Conservatives argue that allowing them to remain on the rolls would increase the risk of voter fraud.
It's not clear how quickly Ozaukee County Circuit Judge Paul Malloy will rule, but either way the case is likely to eventually wind up in the hands of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where conservatives control five of the seven seats.
Three voters, represented by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, brought the challengeto the elections commission's handling of the matter.
The commission, which has an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, is fighting the lawsuit. It argues that the law gives it the power to decide how to manage the voter registration list. It wants to wait until after the April 2021 election before removing anyone, citing concerns that everyone identified may not have moved and that removing them would create confusion.
The commission also argued that leaving a registered voter on the polls, even if the person has moved, does not mean they will actually commit fraud by voting at their old address.
The elections commission decided to wait longer than 30 days to deactivate voters because of problems in 2017 after about 343,000 voters were flagged as potential movers. More than 300,000 people who did not respond were deactivated, leading to confusion, anger and complaints. Wisconsin allows same-day voter registration, but it requires photo ID and proof of address.
A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis, published Thursday, of the 234,000 voters whose registrations are at risk found that some of the highest percentages would be in Wisconsin's two largest cities and areas with college campuses — epicenters of Democratic support. Milwaukee and Madison account for 23% of the letters that were sent to voters who may have moved. More than half of the letters went to voters in municipalities where Democrat Hillary Clinton defeated Trump in 2016, the analysis found.
Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin, said people who move frequently tend to be younger, less likely to be married, more likely to be non-white, and lower-income. And he said they're more likely to be Democratic voters.
Burden said if the lawsuit is successful, “it could present a significant hurdle for Democratic campaigns, who will need to redouble their efforts to do voter education and registration.”
As of Dec. 5, only about 16,500 of those who received the mailing had registered at their new address. More than 170,000 hadn't responded, and the postal service was unable to deliver notifications to nearly 60,000 voters.
While the lawsuit is pending, the commission has asked the Republican-controlled Legislature to provide clarity by passing a law or empowering the commission to create procedures on how to deal with voters who have moved.
Wisconsin has about 3.3 million registered voters out of about 4.5 million people of voting age.
Next year's presidential race isn't the only high-stakes election that could be affected by the registration lawsuit. Wisconsin has a February primary for a seat on the highly partisan state Supreme Court. The state's presidential primary is in April.