Judge finds state Elections Commission in contempt on voter purge

By: - January 13, 2020 5:00 pm
"Vote Here" sign (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Vote Here (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Ozaukee County Judge Paul Malloy found the state Elections Commission in contempt of court on Monday for failing to immediately purge more than 200,000 voters from the rolls after he ordered them to do so.

The judge ordered the commission to pay $50 per day, and three individual commissioners to pay $250 per day each, until the voters’ names are removed.

Lawyers in the case noted that there was no deadline on Judge Malloy’s order, and plaintiffs and defendants are still awaiting the outcome of an appeal to federal court, as well as a decision of the State Supreme Court, which has been asked to take the case.

It’s not clear how much of a sense of urgency the fines will create for the commissioners, who deadlocked 3-to-3 on a vote on the purge last week. The commission’s understanding, according to staff there, is that because the commissioners are being sued in their official capacity, they are not personally liable for any monetary penalties. So the contempt fines really amount to the transfer of funds the commission’s offices to those of the Ozaukee County court.

Ann Jacobs, one of the three commissioners facing fines, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel she believes Malloy’s initial findings were incorrect and she does not want to begin taking people off the rolls even though she’s been found in contempt of court. 

“If we are going to treat voting as the central component of our democracy, we need to be far less cavalier about taking people off the rolls,” Jacobs told the paper. 

The commission might be reluctant to move expeditiously while facing the possibility that it could be guilty of violating the U.S. Constitution, as the League of Women Voters is arguing in federal court.

For the commission, the voter purge lawsuits come at a particularly difficult time, during preparations for the spring elections. Some absentee ballots have already been mailed in the special election in the 7th Congressional District, further complicating matters.

The more than 200,000 voters who are being ordered stricken from the rolls because they might have moved is nine times larger than Donald Trump’s margin of victory in Wisconsin in the 2016 election. 

“I wasn’t in court today, but I am surprised at the reports coming from the courtroom,” said Jeffrey Mandell, an attorney for the defendants in the case. “I would have anticipated Judge Malloy allowing the process in the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court to play out at least until the motion to stay his order was adjudicated.”

Today’s decision set off a “scramble” in the courts, Mandell added. “Unfortunately, Wisconsin voters have become the ball in a ping-pong match.”

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.