Wisconsin Elections Commission debates future of voter rolls while issue still before Supreme Court

    In this file photo Michelle Orengo-McFarlane looks for her name on a voter registration list in San Francisco, California. Some voters don't discover they've been purged from the voter rolls until they go to vote. (Photo by David Paul Morris/Getty Images)
    In this file photo Michelle Orengo-McFarlane looks for her name on a voter registration list in San Francisco, California. Some voters don't discover they've been purged from the voter rolls until they go to vote. (Photo by David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

    The Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) began a debate Wednesday over future ways to keep voter registration lists up-to-date — a controversial issue in the past, with a lawsuit over the matter currently pending before the state Supreme Court.

    States are required to keep their voter lists updated by removing voters who have died and updating the registration of voters who have moved. To do this, the state has an agreement with the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a national organization that tracks the data. 

    ERIC uses data from state Departments of Motor Vehicles to flag when someone may have moved. The issue is that the DMV can flag an address change for all sorts of reasons other than a person moving. The last time Wisconsin compiled its movers’ list, more than 7% of those flagged hadn’t actually moved. 

    When a person is flagged as having moved, the WEC sends a mailing to confirm. The pending lawsuit is to decide whether or not those flagged voters should be removed from the rolls — which states are required to do. 

    On Wednesday, despite the issue still working its way through the courts, the WEC began planning for the compilation of ERIC data for 2021. The state needs to start the process of finding the voters who have moved or died since the last time data was collected 18 months ago. 

    The 2019 data found more than 230,000 voters who may have moved. After the 2020 election cycle, 30% of them have not responded to any mailing and did not attempt to re-register or vote in the 2020 presidential election. But nearly 66% updated their registrations at a new address or confirmed they still lived at the original location, according to WEC data

    The commission, which is split 3-3 between Democrats and Republicans, was still unable to agree on what should be done with the people who the data shows have moved — again, that issue is yet to be decided by the courts. The body was able to find some consensus on the idea of collecting the data more regularly in an effort to avoid massive datasets containing hundreds of thousands of voter files. 

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    While no votes were taken, Republican Dean Knudson pushed for more frequent data collection and voter outreach. 

    “I would really encourage that we do this quarterly, instead of every two years, do it every few months, it’s a smaller job, it breaks up the workload for the clerks,” Knudson said. “I think people will get used to the idea that this is a regular list maintenance thing, and I really strongly support that idea.” 

    For a body that frequently deadlocks on party line votes, especially over issues as divisive as this one, Knudson’s proposal got support from two of the Democrats. Commission Chair Ann Jacobs said she was open to voting for such a policy in the future, but countered the argument that hundreds of thousands of fraudulent voters are being allowed to stay on the rolls. She reiterated that the registrations at issue are legal, registered voters who may have moved to a new city or voting district.

    “I think the idea of using the data more frequently is a terrific idea,” Jacobs said. “I don’t know … how many thousands of emails we’ve gotten, all of which repeat this lie of 200,000 illegal voters on the rolls, and I will say it again: ‘It is a lie, please stop sending us emails on it, it’s not true, you have been lied to.’”

    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.