The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Court blocks planned purge of more than 200,000 people from a swing state’s voter rolls

Protesters demonstrate outside the Ozaukee County Courthouse in Port Washington, Wis., on Monday, after members of the election commission were held in contempt for refusing to purge voters from the state rolls. (Michael Sears/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/AP)

An appeals court has temporarily halted the purge of more than 200,000 people from Wisconsin’s voter rolls, in a case that set off a bitter fight over voting rights in a swing state that will be fiercely contested during the 2020 presidential race.

The Tuesday order came one day after the state’s elections commission and its three Democratic members were found in contempt of court for not complying with a judge’s previous order to cancel the registrations of roughly 6 percent of its voters.

The case is largely split along partisan lines. Republicans argue that thousands of people who have changed addresses have not updated their voter registration status and should therefore be struck from the rolls to ensure election integrity, while Democrats and voting rights advocates say the move will unjustly disenfranchise swaths of the electorate — particularly low-income voters, young people and people of color, who tend to lean left.

A similar struggle has also played out in Georgia, where rolls were culled by more than 300,000 overnight last month, and in Ohio and Texas — spotlighting countrywide accusations of voter suppression in the run-up to the presidential election.

In Wisconsin, where President Trump won by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016, party officials are following the legal saga closely, aware that their state may play a decisive role in November. If voters are removed from the rolls, state law allows them to re-register up to and on Election Day.

On Tuesday evening, Trump traveled to Milwaukee for a campaign rally and was still reveling in his victory as he took the stage, telling the crowd, “I’m thrilled to be back in Wisconsin, where we had a very big night a few years ago.”

But it was liberals, who had resolved to continue fighting the purge on Monday, that cheered Tuesday as news spread that the state’s rolls would remain intact. Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty — a conservative law group that sued to have the registrations pruned — said the ruling doesn’t change its argument.

“What is true yesterday is true today,” the group’s president, Rick Esenberg, said in a statement. “The Wisconsin Elections Commission isn’t following state law and we look forward to making that case in the Court of Appeals.”

A judge ordered up to 234,000 people to be tossed from the registered voter list in Wisconsin

But it does mean that the commission’s three Democrats won’t have to pay a $250-per-day fine, the penalty levied by Ozaukee County Circuit Judge Paul Malloy after he found the officials in contempt and admonished them for fighting his December order to purge the rolls.

“I cannot be clearer on this: They need to follow the order,” Malloy said at a court hearing, one day before a three-judge panel blocked his ruling.

The six-person election commission had been split evenly along partisan lines, the Republicans voting in favor of the purge and the Democrats voting against it. In a meeting on Tuesday, commissioners again disagreed — 3 to 3 — about how to respond.

“It’s a Republican-Democrat issue,” said Republican commissioner Robert Spindell, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel account of the meeting. “The Dems like to have huge numbers of people on the list and the Republicans like to have clean lists and that’s a problem that I don’t think we’ll be able to overcome.”

Julie Glancey, a Democrat, argued that the original order was too broad and would inevitably sweep up properly registered voters, according to the newspaper.

“These are eligible, registered voters,” she said. “They are not by any stretch of the imagination illegal or anything else.”

A Journal Sentinel analysis of the over 200,000 register voters targeted — all of whom were sent a letter in October seeking address confirmation — found that most lived in municipalities that supported Hillary Clinton in 2016. Milwaukee and Madison, where Democratic support is strongest, received 23 percent of the letters despite accounting for just 14 percent of registered voters.

Another key legal decision in the case was handed down this week, when the state Supreme Court said it wouldn’t hear the case now, an announcement that opened the door for Tuesday’s appeals court ruling. It also means, the Associated Press reported, that the issue is unlikely to be solved before the presidential election.

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