MADISON – The state Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday about whether to remove more than 100,000 people from the voter rolls because they may have moved, but no one is sure how accurate the list is.
State officials have said they know the list contains errors, but not how many.
Those trying to take people off the list say they believe the list is largely accurate and anyone wrongly removed from the voting rolls could easily re-register to vote. Meanwhile, one recent analysis of the list contends thousands of people on it didn’t actually move.
The stakes in the case are high, but probably not for the Nov. 3 presidential election. Attorneys on both sides do not expect the court to rule until after then, which would mean the ruling would affect only how the state handles the rolls for future elections.
Also Tuesday, the court will hear arguments over when voters are considered indefinitely confined — a definition that has taken on importance because those voters can receive absentee ballots without first showing a photo ID. The issue has become salient this year because voters are increasingly turning to absentee ballots because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Last year, the state Elections Commission notified about 232,000 voters that it believed they had moved. The commission planned to remove voters from the rolls in 2021 if they hadn’t confirmed their addresses or updated their voter registrations with new addresses by then.
Three suburban Milwaukee men sued with the help of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. They contended state law required the voters on the list to be quickly removed from the list.
An Ozaukee County judge agreed with them, but an appeals court unanimously ruled state law did not require the commission to take the voters off the rolls. They remain on the rolls as the state Supreme Court considers the case.
Since the voters were first contacted, the size of the list has shrunk to about 129,000. That’s because some on the list have updated their registrations or confirmed they had not moved.
Wisconsin’s list was compiled by the Electronic Registration Information Center, a consortium that helps 30 states and Washington, D.C., maintain accurate voter rolls.
That list was generated using change of address forms submitted to the U.S. Postal Service and vehicle registrations in Wisconsin and other states that belong to the coalition.
ERIC does not use commercial data that businesses use to make sure they are sending packages, catalogs and credit card bills to the right addresses. That’s because the companies that maintain such lists haven’t agreed to protect the privacy of voters, said Shane Hamlin, ERIC’s executive director.
State officials have acknowledged the list it has of people who may have moved has flaws, noting that the system they use sometimes improperly flags people as having moved when they have simply registered a vehicle at the address of a business or a relative’s home. They have said they don’t know how many people may be wrongly on the list.
A report by the Palast Investigative Fund concluded that thousands of people on Wisconsin’s list hadn’t actually moved. The report was put together by Greg Palast, who has focused in recent years on efforts to take people off the voter rolls across the country and recently published the book “How Trump Stole 2020.”
The report was produced for Black Voters Matter Fund, an arm of a group that has mobilized Black voters to vote for Democrats in recent years.
Palast hired experts that help make sure large companies such as American Express and Home Depot have accurate addresses for their customers. His team compared those the state believes may have moved to numerous address databases and determined many in fact had not moved.
“This certainly brings up major questions about the efficacy of this list and the appropriateness of removing them,” said John Lenser, who helped analyze the Wisconsin list for Palast. “If I was in the driver’s seat I would say, ‘Hey, there’s enough questions hanging over this that these people should not be removed.’ “
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has not verified the findings on its own, and others have not been able to say how many errors the list contains.
Rick Esenberg, the attorney leading the effort to take voters off the rolls, questioned Palast’s findings. He said he believed the state’s list was largely accurate and contended the state must take voters off the rolls when it has evidence they have moved.
“The law in this case does not require that the list be perfect. No such list would be,” said Esenberg, the president of Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
“Anyone whose registration is de-activated in error would have multiple opportunities to re-register to vote if they hadn’t moved,” he said.
Wisconsin allows voters to register at the polls. Those who are taken off the rolls can get reinstated by providing proof of residence.
Indefinitely confined voters
The other case the Supreme Court will hear Tuesday sprang up after Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell posted a notice online ahead of the April election telling voters that they could get absentee ballots without providing an ID by designating themselves indefinitely confined if they were staying in their home because of the pandemic.
The state Republican Party sued and the justices in March ordered McDonell to make sure advice he gave to the public on the issue was in line with guidance from the state Elections Commission.
The court is holding arguments before issuing a final ruling regarding when a voter qualifies as indefinitely confined and can get an absentee ballot without providing an ID.
For the April election, more than 200,000 voters called themselves indefinitely confined and did not have to provide an ID.
The issue has also cropped up in a federal lawsuit over how Wisconsin will conduct this fall’s election. As part of a broader decision on several election issues last week, U.S. District Judge William Conley told the state Elections Commission it must alert voters on government websites that to be considered indefinitely confined one does not have to have a ” permanent or total inability to travel outside of the residence.”
Contact Patrick Marley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.