Wisconsin judge's ruling could purge 200,000 from voter rolls

Victoria Bekiempis
Photograph: Scott Bauer/AP

A Wisconsin judge’s order to boot more than 200,000 people from voter rolls in the battleground state spurred condemnation from Democrats, amid claims of voter suppression.

If the decision stands, it could have an impact on the 2020 presidential election. In 2016, Donald Trump won Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes. Subsequent contests have also returned tight margins.

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“I won the race for governor by less than 30,000 votes,” tweeted Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat who beat the former Republican presidential hopeful Scott Walker last year.

“This move pushed by Republicans to remove 200,000 Wisconsinites from the voter rolls is just another attempt at overriding the will of the people and stifling the democratic process.

“Voting is a fundamental right, and we should be making it easier for folks to vote, not harder. It’s time for Republicans to move on from the election we had more than a year ago and start working on the pressing issues facing our state.”

In October, the Wisconsin Elections Commission mailed a letter to 234,000 voters who it thought might have moved, requesting that they update registration information.

As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (Will), a conservative group, then filed suit.

The lawsuit said the voters contacted should have 30 days to confirm their addresses. If they did not do so, Will said, their registration status should be changed from “eligible” to “ineligible”.

Will asked county circuit judge Paul Malloy to grant an injunction that would require election authorities to purge the rolls. In his ruling on Friday, Malloy identified a legal obligation to strip the rolls in 30 days.

“I don’t want to see someone deactivated but I don’t write the law,” said Malloy, who was appointed in 2002 by the then Republican governor, Scott McCallum, and has since been re-elected. “There’s no basis for saying 12 to 24 months is a good time frame. It’s not that difficult to do it sooner … If you don’t like [it], you have to go back to the legislature.”

In a statement, the elections commission said it would analyze “the judge’s oral decision and [consult] with the six members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission on next steps”.

Will’s president, Rick Esenberg, said: “This case is about whether a state agency can ignore clearly written state law. Today’s court order requires the Wisconsin Elections Commission to follow state law, and we look forward to making the case that they must continue to follow state law.”

Voting authorities and the League of Women Voters indicated they would fight the decision, which Malloy refused to stay pending appeals.

According to the Journal Sentinel, the cities of Milwaukee and Madison – Democratic strongholds – are home to 14% of the state’s registered voters but received 23% of letters sent out. Fifty-five percent of the mailings, meanwhile, went to areas where Hillary Clinton beat Trump.

Eric Holder, US attorney general under Barack Obama, commented on Twitter.

“Here they go,” he said. “Voter purge in Wisconsin that disproportionately targets Democrats, people of color and those who voted for Hillary in 2016. The expected unfairness. Fight this Wisconsin! Fight for a fair election.”

Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democratic congressman, wrote: “At a time when voter suppression [and] purging eligible voters from rolls is rampant nationwide, we should do everything in our power to ensure no one wrongfully loses their voice at the ballot box in Wisconsin or anywhere.”

Ben Wikler, chair of the state Democratic party, criticized the decision and called for action, writing: “A rightwing lawsuit triggered a 200,000-voter purge in Wisconsin yesterday. But we still have same-day registration in this state. So now our job is to organize harder than they can suppress.”