Earlier this month, more than 234,000 voters received a letter from the Wisconsin Elections Commission warning that their voter registration could be deactivated. State election officials sent the notice to people they think have moved, based on government records, and told them to confirm their address if they wanted to maintain their voter registration. The letter didn’t have a deadline to reply, but election officials said in a press release that they wouldn’t remove anyone from the rolls until after the spring 2021 election.
But last week a conservative advocacy group, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), filed a complaint with the elections commission arguing that under state law, the board is required to remove any voter who doesn’t confirm their address in just 30 days.
The elections commission disputes that the window for people to confirm their addresses must be so narrow. It says its cautious approach is necessary because of the risk of removing eligible voters from the rolls. The panel says it has broad authority under state law to maintain the voter rolls.
“This mailing is designed to help people who may have moved within Wisconsin make sure they’re ready to vote next year. It will not keep anyone eligible from voting,” Meagan Wolfe, the administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, said in a statement earlier this month.
Richard Esenberg, the founder and president of WILL, accused the officials of violating a state statute that requires election officials to remove someone from the rolls within 30 days if they have reliable information the person has moved.
“Any fraud prevention in any walk of life is going to result in a certain amount of inconvenience and there may be a small percentage of cases in which it’s inaccurate,” Esenberg told HuffPost.
The dispute centers on an interpretation of Wisconsin state law, but it raises a larger question at the heart of the voting rights debate in the United States: How aggressive should election officials be in removing people from the voter rolls if they think those people have moved? In Wisconsin, a state that could play a big role in the 2020 presidential race, the answer to that could have significant consequences.
Wisconsin election officials are being careful. To help clean its voter rolls, the state subscribes to the Electronic Registration Information Center, otherwise known as ERIC, a widely praised consortium of 29 states that uses motor vehicle and other government records to clean up voter rolls and identify people who are eligible but haven’t registered to vote. In late 2017, Wisconsin used ERIC data for the first time to identify and mail notices to 341,855 people who it believed had moved. A few months later, it canceled more than 335,000 of those registrations.
But it turned out there were some errors. Some people had registered vehicles at an address other than where they voted. To the state, it looked like they had moved. Ultimately, more than 18,000 people deactivated from the voter rolls were subsequently reactivated in 2018.
Because it has long used same-day voter registration, Wisconsin is exempt from a 1993 federal law that restricts how aggressively a state can remove people from the voter rolls. The 44 states subject to that law have to wait at least two federal election cycles after sending a notice if they want to remove someone from the rolls because they suspect that individual has moved.
At least 17 million people nationwide had their voter registration canceled between the 2016 election and the 2018 midterms, according to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice. It’s not known how many of those cancellations were legitimate.
If Wisconsin were to give voters only 30 days to confirm their address, there would be another problem: The notice it sent out earlier this month didn’t inform people they faced any deadline for confirming their registration, much less such a short-term one.
Esenberg conceded that if a 30-day deadline were imposed, some eligible voters might be removed from the rolls, but argued that any damage to voters would be minimal because Wisconsin has same-day voter registration.
But requiring people to re-register at the polls could create longer lines and additional obstacles on Election Day, noted David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Innovative Research, who helped develop ERIC. That’s an especial concern in Wisconsin, which is expected to have one of the highest voter turnouts in the country in 2020.
“Why risk anything and take someone off the rolls who might have to use same-day voter registration later?” Becker said. “They’re being very wise in how they’re approaching it. The last thing you want to do is create a circumstance where you might inadvertently contribute to long lines.”