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Greg Palast: Wisconsin 'movers' didn't move

Greg Palast: Wisconsin 'movers' didn't move

Voter Purge Wisconsin protest (copy) (copy)

Gregory Lewis, the leader of Souls to the Polls, leads a protest outside the Ozaukee County Courthouse in Port Washington in Januray. Inside, Circuit Judge Paul Malloy held state election officials in contempt of court for not following his order to remove thousands of people from the voters rolls. 

On Tuesday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court may choose our president. That is, justices will hear arguments in a lawsuit that would force the state to remove 129,000 people from the voter rolls on grounds they’d moved from their registration addresses.

But a report by the nation’s top experts in address verification, including the official licensee of the U.S. Postal Service, says that at least 39,722 “movers” did not move.

Worse, the hit list is not only disastrously wrong, it is suspiciously over-weighted with African Americans.

Given Trump’s 2016 Wisconsin victory margin of less than 23,000 votes, this racially poisonous purge of voters could decide the state, and so the nation.

On Monday, Black Voters Matter Fund issued my foundation’s report, "Wisconsin 'Movers' Purge List Errors" with a link to where we list every single voter facing erasure of their voting rights.

This was not a sampling nor estimate. Rather, four experts in what is called “address list hygiene” — the same experts that confirm your address for Amazon, eBay and Home Depot — conducted a name by name review of addresses using 240 tested data feeds — where you get your Netflix films, your mortgage, your taxes, your credit card purchases — to locate you with absolute precision.

In addition, it was all checked with the post office’s designated licensee, Merkle Inc., in charge of maintaining the deep historic change-of-address files.

As an economist and statistician by training, the technical term for the “movers” purge list is “garbage.” Indeed, the state Board of Elections is resisting using a list they fear could be 15% wrong — unacceptable when the right of a citizen to vote is at stake. But our experts found the list twice as error-filled as the state’s guesstimate.

Maps of the Milwaukee area reveal a near-perfect match between the percentage of Black voters in a Census tract with the number of voters wrongly tagged as having moved. 

Rick Esenberg brought this lawsuit on behalf of Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL). When I spoke to him, Esenberg admitted he had not checked his would-be voter cancellation list for accuracy. He never heard of address list hygiene and claims he has no idea that the list is overloaded with Black and low-income voters.

WILL is backed by the right-wing Wisconsin billionaire Bradley Foundation. That does not surprise Elections Commissioner Ann Jacobs who is blunt about their aim: “I think it’s crystal clear the intent of this suit was to remove voters in Milwaukee and Madison … on behalf of the Republican Party in an attempt to gain an advantage … particularly for the Presidential race.” Catch Esenberg, Jacobs and the full story in this 7-minute film.

Whatever the intent, how could Esenberg’s group get it so wrong? It begins with a misuse of what is called the “ERIC” list. ERIC is the Electronic Registration Information Center of Washington.

ERIC, controlled by 30 state officials, uses a limited and amateurish system for identifying those who have moved from their registration address. But that’s not a problem, as ERIC was not established to hunt voters for the purge but to find those who moved into a state or town and invite them to register.

ERIC often confuses common names like James Brown. If the wrong James Brown gets a postcard inviting him to register, no harm done. But the Wisconsin Legislature and then-Gov. Scott Walker added a stinger: If a voter does not return the postcard, they must be removed from the voter rolls.

The card looks like “junk mail” — so less than 2% returned it. Our lead address verification expert John Lenser said, “not returning a postcard does not at all indicate someone has moved. People think it’s so-called ‘junk mail’ and toss it.” Indeed, he says, unless a card is returned “undeliverable,” that is evidence the voter has not moved.

Mark Swedlund, a recognized expert in mailings, notes from Census studies that minority, young and urban residents don’t always receive mass mailings and respond at only a fraction of the rate of white, older, suburban homeowners. In effect, the “Jim Crow” result is in the postcard return requirement.

The Palast Fund reached out to over 700 voters, and we heard the same story again and again: "I never moved."

Adding to bias against low-income and young voters, these “junk mail” cards were sent to voters who moved within the cities of Milwaukee and Madison even though both federal and state law prohibits cancelling registrations of those who move within their city.

Our experts identified another 58,000 who moved within their county. Typical is student Phyo Zin Kyaw of Madison College, who told us he moved just two doors down yet faces loss of his vote.

LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright, co-founders of Black Voters Matter, who released the experts’ report, have had enough. "There is a small right-wing group which wants to undermine Black voters and young voters. They are desperate because they are losing power — so they are resorting to cheating and undermining the election by any means."

Greg Palast, who directs the Palast Investigative Fund, has tracked voter roll purges for The Guardian, Rolling Stone, BBC Television and The Nation.

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