© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Wisconsin's Voting Battles Could Be Pivotal To 2020 Election


The Associated Press is reporting that a senior election adviser to President Trump told Republicans in Wisconsin that the party has traditionally relied on voter suppression in swing states like Wisconsin. These remarks come as a legal battle is unfolding in the state over whether to remove the names of more than 200,000 voters from the registration rolls. As Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson reports, this is the latest in a long line of voting fights in Wisconsin, which could be pivotal in the 2020 election.

SHAWN JOHNSON, BYLINE: Everyone's heard the old adage that in politics, every vote counts. It might not feel that way if you live in a state that's deep red or deep blue. But in a purple state like Wisconsin, close elections are a way of life - like in 2016, Donald Trump won the presidency partly because he won Wisconsin.


WOLF BLITZER: CNN now projects that Donald Trump will carry the state of Wisconsin.

JOHNSON: Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by about 23,000 votes, or less than 1% percent. And last year, Democrat Tony Evers defeated Republican Scott Walker to become Wisconsin's governor.


TONY EVERS: The voters of Wisconsin spoke, and they agree - a change is coming, Wisconsin.


JOHNSON: This was also close. Evers won by fewer than 30,000 votes, or right around 1%. So when you're a state like Wisconsin, the rules and procedures for voting get watched a little more closely, and that's been the case with the legal dispute over Wisconsin's voter purge. Barry Burden is a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

BARRY BURDEN: We are likely to be the most important swing state or one of a handful of really important battleground states that will decide the next presidential election.

JOHNSON: At the heart of this dispute is a multistate system that flagged more than 200,000 Wisconsin voters who might have moved. Wisconsin's bipartisan elections commission decided earlier this year to send letters to those voters, but under the commission's plan, none of the voters would have their registrations automatically revoked until 2021. At the time, the decision was not controversial.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All in favor say aye.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Opposed? Motion's adopted.

JOHNSON: But not everyone saw it that way. A conservative think tank called the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty sued. It argued that voters who were flagged as having moved and did not respond to the state's letter should be removed from the rolls immediately. The case was heard in conservative Ozaukee County, where Circuit Court Judge Paul Malloy ruled that state law was clear on this. The list of more than 200,000 voters who'd been flagged must be purged.


PAUL MALLOY: I don't want to see anybody deactivated, but I don't write the legislation. That's not my area. That's not my domain.

JOHNSON: The state's top elected officials are watching the case. Democratic Governor Tony Evers says he doesn't want anyone removed from the rolls by mistake, but he's also concerned that many of the people whose names could be purged are from places like Madison and Milwaukee.

EVERS: Absolutely. I mean, it's clear that most of the people, that the majority of the people that are on those rolls are likely those that would support a Democrat, coming from Democratic parts of the state.

JOHNSON: Republicans point out that Wisconsin has Election Day voter registration and that anyone who is accidentally removed should be able to cast a ballot. The UW-Madison's Barry Burden says most of the voters on this list probably won't be affected because they actually moved. But if only a small percentage is mistakenly purged, he says it could have real-world ramifications.

BURDEN: Anything that affects the registration and voting process could affect the outcome.

JOHNSON: In a pivotal state like Wisconsin that's so closely divided, Burden says it could plausibly mean the difference between whether Donald Trump is reelected president or not.

For NPR News, I'm Shawn Johnson in Madison.


Shawn Johnson covers the State Capitol for Wisconsin Public Radio. Shawn joined the network in 2004. Prior to that he worked for WUIS-FM, a public radio station in Springfield, Illinois. There, Shawn reported on the Illinois legislature. He also managed the station's western Illinois bureau, where he produced features on issues facing rural residents. He previously worked as an Assistant Producer for WBBM-AM radio in Chicago.