The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Friday it's up to local officials, not the Elections Commission, to remove voters from the rolls, a reversal of a previous lower court decision that directed the state to purge thousands from the list.
The 5-2 decision Friday came days after the statewide spring general election, the point at which Wisconsin Elections Commission staff were already planning to begin deactivating the so-called "movers." But the ruling means WEC will not remove some 70,000 voters from the rolls.
The ruling also has wider implications for WEC's involvement in the Electronic Registration Information Center, an effort to identify voters who changed their address, moved out of state or died. The court ruled state law leaves it up to the more than 1,800 local clerks, rather than the state as conservatives who brought the lawsuit argued, to remove voters when there's reason to believe they moved.
Conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn and Chief Justice Pat Roggensack joined the court's liberal minority in agreeing there's "no credible argument" that state law gives the responsibility of updating the rolls based on the "movers" list to WEC.
But the bench's two other conservative justices, led by Rebecca Bradley, countered the decision "relieves WEC of its statutory obligations" and "leaves the administration of Wisconsin election law in flux."
The debate over the topic dates back to fall 2019, when commissioners sent mailers to the around 230,000 individuals who were identified as having potentially moved.
Rather than automatically purging them from the voter list if they didn't respond to the mailing within a month, the commission agreed to keep them on an active list until after the April 2021 election. That decision came after past issues in which some individuals were misidentified as having moved and erroneously removed from the rolls.
The commission's decision to postpone the removal of the movers ahead of the 2020 cycle drew a lawsuit from the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which argued commissioners illegally changed their practices for maintaining the voter rolls. The court heard oral arguments in the case in late September.
WILL argued that recipients of the mailers had to respond within a month in order to maintain their position on the rolls. If no response if received within 30 days, officials said, they become ineligible to vote and need to re-register in order to cast a ballot. But WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe has said the law only requires that Wisconsin join ERIC, the multi-state voter maintenance agreement, and doesn't specify how voter maintenance should be conducted.
Wolfe in a said in a statement that WEC was still analyzing the court decision.
But WILL President Rick Esenberg slammed the decision as "a disappointing setback for those who expect Wisconsin state agencies to follow the law."
“It is now up to the legislature to fix the law," he added.
Since fall 2019, as the suit made its way through the courts, WEC has shrunk the list by more than two-thirds to around 71,000 individuals — none of whom voted in the 2020 presidential election. A WEC report from February showed some 17,000 individuals, or 7.2% of those identified in the original movers list, had not moved. Another 58% registered at a new address, while 3.6% were deactivated and 30.8% remain on the list.
Wisconsin joined ERIC in 2016.