Days after an Ozaukee County judge ruled to remove some 200,000 registered voters from the state's rolls, the Wisconsin Elections Commission deadlocked twice as members failed to agree on what to do about it.
Both motions died along 3-3 party-line votes, a rare occurrence in the bipartisan body, as Republicans sought to comply with the judge's ruling and purge the voters within seven business days. Democrats countered the move would create confusion as the decision is expected to be appealed — though a Department of Justice spokeswoman didn't weigh in on a potential timeline.
Removing the voters, a push initiated by a lawsuit from the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, would largely impact college towns and Democratic-leaning areas, a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis found, though some rural communities that backed President Donald Trump would also be affected.
Voters were flagged by the Elections Commission as having potentially moved based on information it received from the DMV, post office or other government agencies, leading the body to send the individuals letters asking them to verify their address to remain registered and cast ballots.
The commission sought to allow voters to stay on the active list until after the April 2021 election. At that time, those who haven't voted or re-registered would be deactivated. But WILL argued the approach is illegal and that the commission is mandated to remove voters from the rolls if it doesn't receive a response to its mailings after 30 days.
Democrats argued in a brief open-session meeting Monday morning that ordering the commission staff to remove those voters immediately, as one Republican-backed motion sought to do, could create hurdles for voters if there is an appeal.
"We know that there’s going to be an appeal," Democratic appointee Mark Thomsen said. "The law isn’t the law until the Court of Appeals says what it is and to mislead the public by this motion does a disservice to voters and voters' rights everywhere."
But Chair Dean Knudson, a Republican appointee who floated the language, countered the body had received a ruling from a judge Friday "that was pretty clear."
"We do need to uphold the law and what that ruling comes down to unless there is a stay, (is that) that constitutes the law," he said.
The issue centers around the state's involvement in the Electronic Registration Information Center, an effort to identify voters who changed their address, moved out of state or died. Wisconsin under the system removed 308,000 voters from the rolls after sending out mailers in fall 2017, including some who should not have been purged from the list because they were mistakenly identified as having moved.
That caused some confusion during the spring 2018 primary when some voters showed up at the polls and were told they needed to re-register. Wisconsin allows same-day voter registration. That prompted the commission this year to take a different approach.
The commission also deadlocked 3-3 over an earlier motion from Knudson that sought to deem the information received from ERIC by the Elections Commission as "reliable," a move he said would "provide a lot of clarity going forward."
Democrats argued the language would run counter to the guidance the body had previously given in that area.
After both motions failed within a half hour, the commission quickly adjourned without passing any further guidance for the staff. A commission spokesman said once the judge issues a written order, likely later this week, "we will consult with the commissioners and DOJ again about next steps," that could involve another meeting.
Of 234,000 letters sent by ERIC to registered voters this fall, some 60,000 were returned as undeliverable. About 2,300 voters confirmed their current addresses and 16,500 registered at new ones, according to figures from earlier this month.
Gov. Tony Evers slammed the ruling on Twitter late last week, noting that he won the gubernatorial election "by less than 30,000 votes."
"This move pushed by Republicans to remove 200,000 Wisconsinites from the voter rolls is just another attempt at overriding the will of the people and stifling the democratic process," he added.
Meanwhile, the Elections Commission at its last meeting in early December voted to seek further guidance from the Legislature on its approach for updating the state’s voter rolls, including through a bill or the administrative rules process.