Elections Commission Disagrees Over Plans For Voter List Despite Supreme Court Ruling

Commissioners Did Compromise On A Plan To Contact 2021 Movers

Signs telling voters where to enter the Mendota Elementary School polling place on Madison's north side
Signs telling voters where to enter the Mendota Elementary School polling place on Madison’s north side on Nov. 3, 2020. Steven Potter/WPR

The Wisconsin Elections Commission couldn’t come to an agreement Thursday over how to move forward with about 69,000 names that could be deactivated from the state’s voter roll.

That’s despite a long legal battle that ended with a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision earlier this year. In its ruling, the high court said it’s not the state’s responsibility to remove the names, which reflect voters flagged by the Electronic Registration Information Center as having possibly moved.

Commissioners disagreed over whether the court decision went so far as to address the body’s authority to deactivate voters.

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The 2019 list started out with more than 230,000 names. Most of those people have either confirmed their residency or been deactivated through other processes, a WEC staffer explained to commissioners. About half the names remaining on the list are set to be deactivated as part of the state’s existing maintenance process, which purges voters who’ve been inactive for four years.

The Commission discussed the decision for more than two hours in closed session citing possible legal implications. Commission staff presented several options for how to proceed, including deactivating the names at the state level; directing local clerks to review and act on the remaining list; or letting the names deactivate over time through the state’s routine list cleanups.

Republican Commission members noted that there used to be a consensus on the need to proactively maintain the voter roll before it became a political issue. Commissioner Dean Knudson said the body has an obligation to keep an accurate list of voters.

He proposed a motion that would have deactivated voters on the list, except those who moved within their own municipality, and sent a communication to clerks explaining the related Supreme Court decision, which said the responsibility for deactivating voters falls to them. The motion was voted down by the Commission’s three Democrats and Knudson’s Republican colleague Commissioner Robert Spindell, who advocated for taking no action so that the Commission’s 2019 decision to purge the list might stand.

After the vote, a spokesperson from the WEC told WPR via email that “it’s premature to say what may happen to the names.”

Commissioners also discussed plans to address the 2021 mover list from ERIC, a national database of government records. The Commission is required by law to comply with an ERIC membership agreement, which compels states to communicate with at least 95 percent of the people on the mover list.

After hours of discussion, the commissioners came to a compromise on the issue. They approved a plan for this year that includes sending everyone on the list a postcard featuring a tear-off that can be returned to confirm their address. The postcard will also advise voters that they risk being deactivated but can confirm their residence online or by voting in an upcoming election. Poll books will feature watermarks indicating voters on the mover list.

The postcards could start going out later this month, and every three months through the end of the year. They’ll be sent to just over 100,000 voters.

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