Spring Election 3-04022019140143 (copy)

Calvin Coyne, a freshman at UW-Madison, prepares to vote in the 2019 spring election.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission has deadlocked over taking action after an appeals court put on hold a judge’s order directing the body to immediately purge some 200,000 voters from the state’s rolls.

The 3-3 party-line vote came shortly after the District 4 Court of Appeals Tuesday morning issued a stay for an Ozaukee County judge’s Monday order directing the commission to remove the voters who are suspected of moving or face fines.

The six-member panel has repeatedly deadlocked in recent weeks over removing the registered voters, with Democrats blocking Republicans’ efforts to abide by Judge Paul Malloy's ruling last month to do so after a conservative group sued over the issue. 

The lawsuit has roiled the commission, which has rarely split on issues in the past. Democrats have argued the move would create confusion while the decision had been pending appeal and Republicans countered the panel is obligated to follow the orders and ensure individuals don't try to vote with incorrect addresses on file.

During the body’s Tuesday meeting in Madison, the deadlock continued as Republicans sought to approve a motion that would have required the commission to send out another round of communications to potential “movers” later this spring, giving them 30 days to respond or be taken off the lists. 

Under the language, letters would have been sent out to identified voters on May 15, a couple days after the 7th Congressional District special election, and those recipients would have been deactivated if the commission didn’t hear from them — unless they voted in the May 12 special. 

Republicans argued the motion, from recent appointee Robert Spindell and amended a number of times before the vote, would ensure voters have “due process” and ample time to respond to the commission and remain on the rolls. 

 

Spindell, an appointee of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, also didn’t shy away from the partisan divisions on the issue, as members went back and forth over the proposal. 

 

“It’s a Republican-Democratic issue. The Dems like to have huge numbers of people on the list and Republicans like to have clean lists,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s a problem we’ll be able to overcome.” 

But Democrats countered it wasn’t appropriate to take action in light of the stay. They also noted the 2020 election schedule is tight and sending letters could create more confusion, particularly for those who voted in the special election at their appropriate address. 

“I really take issue that (Spindell) keeps referring to these voters as not belonging on the list,” Commissioner Ann Jacobs said. “These are eligible, registered voters. They are not by any stretch of the imagination illegal or anything else.” 

Hours after Malloy's ruling Monday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court in a 3-3 decision also refused a request from the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which first brought the suit, to take up the case and bypass a lower appeals court. That court has previously — until Tuesday morning — declined to act until the state's high court issued its decision. 

Meanwhile, a federal case filed by the League of Women Voters last month aiming to delay removing the voters from the rolls until after the spring general election and Democratic presidential primary on April 7. 

At issue in the cases are the so-called "movers," or voters who were flagged by the Elections Commission as having potentially moved based on information it received from the Department of Motor Vehicles, the post office or other government agencies. The information led the body to send letters to the individuals asking them to verify their addresses 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 hadn’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.

The legal action has drawn national attention as Wisconsin remains positioned as a key battleground state heading into the November general election. In 2016, President Donald Trump won the state by less than 23,000 votes over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Of 234,000 letters sent by the Electronic Registration Information Center 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 last month.

In a separate vote, commissioners agreed to spend up to $260,000 to bring on a Madison-based advertising firm — covered by federal elections security dollars — to launch an education campaign about key voting issues, as well as combat misinformation.

The firm, KW2, has already completed a survey in the fall for the commission of more than 1,000 Wisconsinites regarding elections security issues, findings that would help inform the campaign. 

The survey showed that respondents’ top elections security concerns at the state level include hacking or cyber-attacks (62%), absentee ballots not being counted (60%), issues with outdated equipment (54%) and more. They also found that more than half said they have confidence in election security, the integrity of the process and accurately recording and counting votes at the state level.

The motion was adopted 4-2, with Republican appointees Spindell and Chair Dean Knudson voting against it, citing cost concerns. 

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Briana Reilly covers state government and politics for the Cap Times. She joined the staff in 2019, after working at WisPolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter at @briana_reilly.