The Fight Over Wisconsin's Voter Rolls Purge, Explained

Jan 10, 2020

Wisconsin’s fight over a potential purge of voter registrations has garnered national attention. The issue began with a lawsuit brought by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative law firm based in Milwaukee. The group, also known as WILL, sued Wisconsin’s Elections Commission after it recommended waiting until 2021 to deactivate the registration of voters who may have moved.

Critics claim the lawsuit is meant to complicate the voting process and targets areas with heavy concentrations of Democratic voters. Rick Esenberg, the founder and president of WILL, says the lawsuit isn’t about blocking people from voting — it’s about creating trust in the voting process.

"There is always a balance that has to be struck between ballot integrity and taking reasonable steps to reduce opportunity for fraud and a desire to make voting literally effortless," he explains.

READ: Conservative Group Says Wisconsin Elections Commission Violating State Law

"There is always a balance that has to be struck between ballot integrity and taking reasonable steps to reduce opportunity for fraud and a desire to make voting literally effortless," says Rick Esenberg.

Esenberg says that removing these voters will ensure there are less cases of voting fraud in Wisconsin. But in 2018, the Wisconsin Elections Commission only cited two dozen cases of voter fraud out of more than 2.7 million votes cast in elections that year. Still, Esenberg believes that deregistering the more than 227,000 voters on the "movers list" is a reasonable precaution to ensure election security. 

"The assumption that no one would ever cheat in an election is unhistorical and counter-intuitive," says Esenberg. 

The One Wisconsin Institute is one of the organizations opposing the removal of these voters before the 2020 election. It says the lawsuit has been timed to create greater confusion at the ballot box and discourage voting.

Mike Browne, the deputy director of One Wisconsin, says this lawsuit from WILL fits into a larger pattern of conservative organizations trying to suppress voter turnout.

"One of the tactics that has previously been used is to try and create delays, lines, confusions at polling places, and that's exactly what this voter roll purge, if it happens immediately, could do in these very important spring elections," he explains. 

"One of the tactics that has previously been used is to try and create delays, lines, confusions at polling places, and that's exactly what this voter roll purge, if it happens immediately, could do in these very important spring elections," says Mike Browne.

Browne notes WILL was lobbied by a Republican politician to bring the lawsuit forward. He says the fight over voter rights in Wisconsin is important because of the state's potentially decisive role in the 2020 election. Deregistering these voters could have a major impact on areas which generally support Democratic candidates. 

"The municipalities which would be most heavily impacted by the purge delivered a significant vote margin to the Democratic vs. the Republican candidate for president. And I think what that speaks to is where this lawsuit came from and why this lawsuit is being brought," says Browne.

You can check if you are currently registered to vote in Wisconsin here.

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