, ,

Conservative firm sues WEC’s Meagan Wolfe for access to Wisconsin voter list

Lawsuit comes from Public Interest Legal Foundation, known for lawsuits aimed at purging voter rolls

people registering to vote
A man fills out voter registration card outside the Loop Super Site in downtown Chicago, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020. It is the only location allowing early voting in the city right now, but early voting will expand to locations in all 50 wards on Oct. 14. Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo

A conservative law firm known for filing lawsuits aimed at purging voter rolls is suing Wisconsin’s top election administrator for access to the state’s voter registration list.

The Public Interest Legal Foundation, or PILF, is asking a federal judge to declare that Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Megan Wolfe violated the federal National Voter Registration Act, or NVRA, because the WEC charges for its voter registration list and does not include voters’ dates of birth.

The NVRA was created by Congress in 1993 and requires states to make voter registration lists available for public inspection. Wisconsin and five other states are exempt from the act because they either didn’t have voter registration requirements or, like the Badger State, had same-day registration when the act was signed into law. 

Wisconsin’s voter rolls and public access to them are governed instead by state law and overseen by the Elections Commission. The agency’s Badger Votes portal allows anyone to purchase voter registration lists for a fee ranging from $25 up to a cap of $12,500. The data does not include voters’ date of birth, driver license information or social security numbers.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe.
Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe Sept. 7, 2023. Andy Manis/Wisconsin Watch

The lawsuit wants Wisconsin’s exemption to the federal law invalidated in light of a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found part of the federal Voting Rights Act unconstitutional and “reaffirmed ‘the principle that all States enjoy equal sovereignty.’” They’re also challenging Wisconsin’s $12,500 fee and asking the court to order WEC to provide the state’s voter-registration list with voters’ years of birth.

Public Interest legal Foundation President J. Christian Adams, who was a member of Trump’s voter fraud commission in 2017, told WPR the Supreme Court ruling and other court decisions have laid the foundation for their current challenge.

“We believe transparency should apply in all 50 states, not just 44,” Adams said. “Wisconsin and Minnesota have an exemption from transparency obligations because of things they did 30 years ago or more, that are no longer relevant to current circumstances. And that disclosure of public information is a good thing. We all should be in favor.” 

PILF has filed numerous lawsuits against state and local governments in recent years aimed at purging voters from state registration lists. Adams said providing equal access to voter-registration lists, including the full birthdate of voters, would give voters more confidence in election results.

“And we can have fewer outlandish claims when states are transparent with their records,” Adams said. 

PILF’s board of directors is chaired by attorney Cleta Mitchel, who resigned from Milwaukee based law firm Foley and Lardner in 2021. Mitchel faced scrutiny after it was revealed she was on the phone with Trump as he pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to change that state’s presidential election results. She also drew criticism in 2023 for telling Republican legal strategists they must work to limit voting on college campuses, same-day voter registration and automatic mailing of ballots to registered voters.

The League of Women Voters has been critical of the Public Interest Legal Foundation’s voter purge efforts, arguing they can lead to eligible voters being disenfranchised. The LWM has opposed PILF in court. 

Debra Cronmiller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, told WPR Wisconsin has a process for obtaining voter-registration lists that “is what it is, because the rules are what the rules are.”

She said there could be potential upsides to Wisconsin being part of the NVRA because it requires states to register recipients of federal public benefits to vote. But Cronmiller said there have been attempts to use voter data to suppress votes.

“In the hands of the wrong people, maybe they use the data or information that they are able to publicly get in a way that is not actually promoting voting and the integrity of our elections, but might be trying to undermine it,” Cronmiller said.

Attorney David Fox, with the Democratic firm Elias Law Group, said PILF was part of a growing push by conservatives using the NVRA to “undertake hasty, rushed voter purges.” He said because Wisconsin isn’t part of the federal act, “this seems to be part of a strategy to broaden the number of states in which they can bring those kinds of claims.” 

“What they’re asking for is low cost access to complete detailed voter data, including the date of birth information, which they say openly that they want to use to scrutinize Wisconsin’s voter rolls,” Fox said.

Fox said that could let conservative groups more easily compare the voter data to public records, which are often unreliable, and use the information in an effort to remove more voters from the rolls.