Wis. Elections Panel Sued for Not Cleaning Up Voter Rolls
Nicki Kohl/Telegraph Herald via AP
Wis. Elections Panel Sued for Not Cleaning Up Voter Rolls
Nicki Kohl/Telegraph Herald via AP
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On Nov. 15, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty filed a lawsuit against the Wisconsin Elections Commission, alleging that that panel is ignoring state law that requires it to remove, in a timely fashion, voters identified as having moved but who didn’t inform elections officials of the address change.

Last month, 234,000 Wisconsin voters were recently identified by the commission as having moved. In accordance with state law, they were mailed notices asking them to confirm their address or register at their new one. These mailings don’t always reach the voters they are trying to notify, but about one in 10 Americans moves in a given year. States don’t have the resources to monitor everyone’s whereabouts at all times, so election integrity advocates argue that mailings are the only way to keep voter rolls current.

However in June, WEC adopted a new policy saying that voters flagged as having changed addresses would not have their voter registrations invalidated for 12 to 24 months after they were identified as having moved and failed to respond to notices asking them to confirm their address. Their registrations will stay valid through the 2020 election, even if the voters fail to confirm their address.

WILL’s lawsuit says this new policy is in violation of Section 6.50(3) of the statute, which states, “If the elector … fails to apply for continuation of registration within 30 days of the date the notice is mailed, the clerk or board of election commissioners shall change the elector's registration from eligible to ineligible status.”

WILL President and General Counsel Rick Esenberg said in a statement that the “Wisconsin Election Commission was warned in October that they were acting contrary to state law by allowing voter registrations at old addresses to remain active beyond 30 days. Instead of reversing course, the Wisconsin Election Commission has stubbornly doubled down. This lawsuit is about accountability, the rule of law, and clean and fair elections.”

Along with 28 other states, Wisconsin participates in the Electronic Registration Information Center, a database that records when citizens conduct a government transaction listing an address different from their voter registration. The names of such “movers” are passed on to the states.

Wisconsin law requires that “upon receipt of reliable information that a registered voter has moved,” WEC must notify the voter by mail. A postcard is sent to the voter that allows them to respond and affirm that they still reside at the same address on their voter registration or register at their new address.

Before filing the lawsuit, WILL first filed a complaint with the commission last month. WEC responded to that complaint by saying that it was “confident that [the new policy] is complying with Wisconsin law. … The Legislature has not enacted any specific processes for the Commission or local election officials to deal with information about voters which the state receives from ERIC.”

A central question of the lawsuit centers around whether the data from ERIC should be considered reliable. “Whether the ERIC Movers report is reliable is a question of law but the following facts show that the report is reliable,” observes WILL’s legal filing. “The very reason that the Legislature determined that Wisconsin would join ERIC (and pay the required dues) is because ERIC is widely considered as a reliable source of information to be used by its member states.”

Wisconsin joined ERIC in 2016 and 343,000 voters were sent address confirmation notices that year as a result. Some 308,000 were eventually kicked off the voter rolls, but WEC noted at the time that “well over” 20,000 Wisconsin voters did respond to the postcards and go on to confirm their voter registration address on the state’s website.

Still, there were scattered reports across the state during the 2016 presidential primary that people had shown up at the polls only to find they had been wrongly removed from the rolls.

For their part, WILL claims that concerns about voters in the state being wrongly identified are overblown because registering to vote – even on the day of an election – is exceptionally easy in Wisconsin.  “Our state law is unique in that we allow anyone to register at any point before an election and up to and including on Election Day when they go to vote,” Lucas T. Vebber, deputy counsel for WILL, told RealClearPolitics.

Regardless, WILL’s suit states Wisconsin administrative officials don’t have the authority to disregard laws passed by the state legislature. “The WEC Commissioners do not have the power to set aside the policy decision of the Wisconsin Legislature in this regard and do not have the power to create election law for the State of Wisconsin,” the complaint reads.

Federal law also requires states to keep voter rolls accurate, and an excess of voter registrations is known to contribute to voter fraud, such as “double voting” – a single person casting more than one ballot because they are registered in different precincts. Nonetheless, keeping voter rolls current appears to be a widespread national problem. A 2012 Pew Study found that 2.75 million Americans were registered to vote in more than one state.

The latest federal data show eight states and the District of Columbia have voter registrations exceeding 100%, meaning that there are more voter registrations on file than citizens of voting age that live there. In total, 38 states have one or more counties where voter registration rates exceed 100%. Wisconsin is one of only 12 states that doesn’t appear to have an excess of voter registrations anywhere in the state.

Progressive groups, however, don’t believe that Wisconsin’s voter roll maintenance laws are being enforced in good faith. In 2016, One Wisconsin Now successfully sued to have a number of voting restrictions imposed by the legislature struck down. “The right wing in Wisconsin has a long and shameful record of manipulating the rules on voting for their own advantage,” One Wisconsin Now said in a statement about WILL’s lawsuit. “This effort to bully the Elections Commission into a back door voter roll purge is just the latest example.”

WILL insists its lawsuit is necessary to ensure citizens can trust the integrity of elections in the state. “Maintaining that accuracy helps protect us from fraud. The state has a vested interest in making sure that everybody who votes actually is voting in the proper place,” says Vebber. “The more that we can do to make sure that list is as accurate as possible, the better.”

Mark Hemingway is a writer in Alexandria, Va. You can follow him on twitter @heminator.

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