Wisconsin elections panel seeks clarity on deactivation
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Elections Commission voted Monday to ask the Republican-controlled state Legislature to offer clarity on what to do with voters who may have moved, a dispute being fought in court that could prevent 234,000 people in this key swing state from voting in next year's presidential election.
The commission, comprised equally of Republicans and Democrats, voted 5-1 to request guidance from the Legislature after a conservative law firm last month filed a lawsuit seeking to force the deactivation of voters who did not respond within 30 days to an October mailing indicating that they may have moved.
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.
The commission insists it has the authority to delay deactivating voters because another state law gives it the ability to create rules maintaining the voter registration list.
Commissioner Robert Spindell, a Republican, cast the lone vote against seeking the Legislature's guidance, saying it made no sense to move forward in the face of the lawsuit.
"Just let it slide and see what happens to the court case," Spindell said. "Anything else is a waste of time."
Other commissioners argued it would be useful for the Legislature to get involved, either by passing a law providing clarity or empowering the commission to create its own procedures about how to deal with voters who have moved. They also need to determine what the consequences should be for those who don't respond to the mailing.
"Nobody wants voter fraud to go on," said commission chairman Dean Knudson, a former Republican state lawmaker. He said the Legislature could weigh in on issues that go far beyond what's at stake in the lawsuit.
The Legislature is not scheduled to be in session again until January.
Meanwhile, the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty's lawsuit is moving forward. The group alleges that the commission broke the law when it decided to wait until after the April 2021 spring election to deactivate voters who may have moved. State law requires voters to respond within 30 days of receiving the October mailing or be deactivated, the lawsuit alleges.
The elections commission "is free to ask the legislature to change the law," said Rick Esenberg, president of the group that's suing. "But until the law is changed, the commission must follow it."
If successful, up to 234,000 voters may find themselves unable to cast ballots in the April presidential primary and November general election in Wisconsin. President Donald Trump narrowly won the state by less than 23,000 votes in 2016.
There is also a February primary in Wisconsin for the state Supreme Court race and a host of local offices, as well as a primary for a special election to replace former U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy in northern Wisconsin's 7th Congressional District.
The Wisconsin voters who received the October mailing were identified as potentially having moved based on a review of documents from sources such as the Post Office and Division of Motor Vehicles. Voters who do not respond to the postcard asking them to confirm their address were flagged as movers.
As of Nov. 10, 13,267 of those who received the mailing had registered at a new address and 1,666 requested continuation at their current address. The Post Office was unable to deliver about 54,000.
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 required to re-register than Republicans, making it more difficult for them to vote.
Voters can register at the polls in Wisconsin, so even if someone is wrongly removed they could still vote if they present the required photo identification and proof of address. There are about 3.3 million registered voters in Wisconsin out of about 4.5 million people of voting age.