Nation watches as Wisconsin voter purge battle builds

By: - January 3, 2020 7:05 pm

AFGE joined community advocates and labor unions for the #ProtectMyVote rally on the steps of the Supreme Court in Jan. 2018. By AFGE via Flickr

The heated battle to win Wisconsin in 2020 did not take a break over the New Year’s holiday as a nationally watched court battle over voters continues to play out.

On Monday, the six-member Wisconsin Elections Commission deadlocked 3-3 along partisan lines over whether or not to immediately purge more than 200,000 registered voters in advance of the 2020 elections. The commission’s original plan was to purge the voters in 2021, but that was being challenged in court.

Then Thursday, the Associated Press reported that the right-leaning Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) asked a judge to immediately declare the Wisconsin Elections Commission to be in contempt of court for delaying the purge while the case is being appealed.

The battle is being closely watched nationally, not only because Wisconsin is a key swing state, but because it is among the most aggressive legal challenges in the country tied to voting and voter rights.

This week’s scuffle follows an Associated Press report from Dec. 20 on a leaked tape of one of President Donald Trump’s top election advisers who appeared to be telling Wisconsin Republicans that the party needs to shift strategies from voter suppression to protecting their voters. 

“Traditionally it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes in places,” Justin Clark, a senior political adviser and senior counsel to Trump’s re-election campaign, said at the Wisconsin event, as reported by AP. “Let’s start protecting our voters. … Let’s start playing offense a little bit. That’s what you’re going to see in 2020.”

Clark later explained to AP that he was referring to Republicans being “falsely accused of voter suppression.”

Elections Commission deadlock

After its Monday vote, the commission put out a statement reading: “The Wisconsin Elections Commission did not pass any motion directing staff to take action on the movers mailing list. This means the Commission will await further direction from the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of Wisconsin.  When those courts provide direction, the Commission will hold another meeting to discuss action to comply with the ruling.”

WILL, however, doesn’t want to wait and wants the judge fine the commission and most of its members up to $12,000 ($2,000 a day) each until it purges those 209,000 voters from its rolls. (It is not targeting Robert Spindell, who recently joined the commission after its voter-roll decision. He also advised WILL to file the lawsuit before he was appointed to the commission by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.)

The size of the potential purge is nine times greater than Trump’s 2016 margin of victory in Wisconsin, which was fewer than 23,000 votes.

Genesis of the purge

Last fall, the Election Commission sent mailings to roughly 232,500 people (the number has been the cause of some dispute) who appeared to have moved and told them to confirm their addresses within 30 days if they wanted to remain registered Wisconsin voters. The vast majority did not respond, but the commission suspects that a significant percentage may not have moved out-of-state, but rather moved within the same community or did not move at all.

The last time the Election Commission did a voter-roll purge, people came to vote in 2016 expecting to be registered, only to find out they were not. While Wisconsin has same-day voter registration, the unexpected need to register meant not everyone had the required documents, causing delays at polling locations and problems for poll workers. The Elections Commission wants to avoid a repeat situation.

Democrats, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and others are fighting to make sure the purge does not take place until the commission has time to figure out who on the list moved and who  were mistakenly put on the list. The affected voters primarily come from Democratic voter strongholds. 

Attorney General Josh Kaul, representing the commission, objected to the contempt motion, according to AP. This case should not effectively be ended before the appeals process plays out,” he said in a statement. Republican legislators want to hire their own attorney at taxpayer expense to defend the purge.

In late December, WILL asked the conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court  to take the case, now before a state appeals court. The Supreme Court has yet to respond. Ozaukee County Judge Paul Malloy has scheduled a Jan. 13 hearing on WILL’s request to immediately purge the rolls, according to CNN

Could the race come down to 1,000 people in Wisconsin?

Sometimes humor attracts the most attention to political battles that people sought to avoid during the holidays.

Days before Christmas, Saturday Night Live did a cold-open sketch of three polarized holiday conversations around dinner tables in California, Georgia and South Carolina around the impeachment and Donald Trump.

It ends with the narrator stating that the three families from opposing political perspectives have one thing in common: 

“They live in states where their votes don’t matter. They’ll debate the issues all year long, but then it all comes down to a thousand people in Wisconsin who won’t even think about the election until the morning of.”

It got lots of laughs and shares on social media in our state, but the potential truth in those words has been echoed in many news stories and the fight over purging the voter rolls and other voting battles in this state:

The presidential election might just come down to a small number of people in Wisconsin. 


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin

Melanie Conklin was the Wisconsin Examiner's founding Deputy Editor, serving from its launch July 1, 2019, until Feb. 1, 2022. She is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications before returning to journalism at the Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.