Supreme Court rejects right-wing effort to purge tens of thousands of voters from rolls

    Wisconsin Supreme Court
    Wisconsin Supreme Court (Creative Commons attribution 2.0)

    In a 5-2 decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court sided with the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC), ruling it did not need to remove tens of thousands of voters from the state’s rolls

    At issue in the case is the ERIC Movers list, a database maintained by more than 30 states that is supposed to help elections administrators track when voters have moved and need to update their registration. Under federal and state law, officials are supposed to keep accurate and current voter rolls. 

    The WEC determined in 2019 it would not use that list to remove voters from its rolls because of potential mistakes. The conservative group Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) sued the WEC in an attempt to force the commission to purge the voters — even though WILL acknowledged that some voters on the list were wrongly added

    Wisconsin law requires voter rolls to regularly be updated so voters who move to another city can vote where they live or voters who have died can be removed from the list. The law requires municipal clerks and local election boards to do this work, although WILL argued it was the WEC’s responsibility. 

    In a majority opinion written by conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn, WILL’s argument was dismissed as not credible. 

    “This argument disregards nearly every foundational principle of statutory interpretation,” Hagedorn wrote. “[The statute] does not apply to the Commission; there is no credible argument that it does.” 

    Hagedorn was joined by conservative Chief Justice Patience Roggensack and liberal Justices Ann Walsh Bradley, Rebecca Dallet and Jill Karofsky. In a year of closely decided and controversial decisions, the 5-2 loss for WILL is a departure from recent Supreme Court decisions in which Hagedorn was a deciding swing vote. 

    Justices Rebecca Bradley and Annette Ziegler dissented, arguing that WEC was in fact required by the statute to remove the voters. In a dissent written by Bradley, the majority decision was cast as a brutal blow to Wisconsin’s democracy. 

    “WEC’s neglect of the state’s voter list threatens not only the rule of law but the integrity of Wisconsin’s elections,” Bradley wrote. “The majority’s feckless response dangerously signals to all litigants that they may defy circuit court orders without penalty, so long as they prevail on appeal.” 

    Bradley, who in the last year has compared a stay-at-home order to fight COVID-19 to the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII and the decision not to allow the Green Party onto the 2020 presidential ballot to Jim Crow in the South, opened her opinion with a quote about the danger of government overreach from an 18th century British court decision. 

    Bradley and Ziegler also sided last year with former President Donald Trump when he attempted to use the Wisconsin court system to overturn the results of the 2020 election. 

    Voting rights advocates celebrated the decision as a defense of voters.

    “Voting rights are under attack,” Debra Cronmiller, Executive Director of League of Women Voters of Wisconsin said in a statement “We are so pleased the Supreme Court has ensured that no legitimately registered voter will unnecessarily be made to register in order to exercise their right to vote.”

    WILL President Rick Esenberg said the decision was disappointing and that WILL would keep working to change the state’s already strict election laws.

    “This is a disappointing setback for those who expect Wisconsin state agencies to follow the law,” Esenberg said. “The Court held today that the legislature created a duty and failed to provide an effective way for that duty to be carried out or enforced by voters. We respectfully disagree. It is now up to the legislature to fix the law. WILL remains committed to the rule of law and to a reasonable set of election rules that acknowledges that the right to vote involves both convenience and assurances of accuracy and integrity.”

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    Henry Redman
    Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.