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The Wisconsin Elections Commission will turn to the Republican-controlled state Legislature for guidance as the agency faces a lawsuit over how it handles polling lists.

Commissioners on Monday voted 5-1 to ask the Legislature to clarify, through an administrative rule or new law, the procedure the commission uses when it sends mailings to voters who may have moved.

The vote comes after the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty filed a lawsuit against the commission last month alleging it violated state-mandated policies related to “movers,” voters who report an official government transaction from an address different from their voter registration address.

A hearing in the case is set for later this month in Ozaukee County court.

The six-member commission is made up of three Democrats and three Republicans. Republican Robert Spindell of Milwaukee, who provided the lone “no” vote, said he had urged WILL to bring suit against the commission.

Wisconsin is one of 29 states that participates in the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, which flags movers. The commission reviews the information to ensure accuracy.

ERIC obtains data from a variety of sources to flag voters who may have moved, such as Wisconsin motor vehicle records, voter registration and motor vehicle records from participating states, and the National Change of Address database from the U.S. Postal Service.

The commission mailed more than 234,000 notifications to voters in early October, but it won’t begin removing non-responsive voters from the polling lists for another year or two.

WILL argues the commission violated state law by not deactivating voters who didn’t respond to the mailings within a month after they were sent.

The commission says the law governing the removal of “movers” from the polling lists is directed toward municipal clerks, not the commission. The commission also argues that a potential mover’s failure to respond to a mailing doesn’t satisfy the law’s requirement of “reliable information” necessary to remove the voter from the polling list.

In 2017, the commission mailed postcards to about 343,000 voters flagged by ERIC as potential movers but faced complications.

More than 300,000 people did not respond and were identified as ineligible to vote. But after the fact, local elections officials found that many of the voters had not actually moved.

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This year so far, 13,267 of the 234,039 flagged voters were found to have registered at a new address and 54,234 mailings were not able to be delivered. Meanwhile, 1,666 of mailing recipients wanted to remain registered at their original address, meaning ERIC was likely wrong in assuming they moved.

Seeking clarity

The commissioners who voted to ask the Legislature for guidance on the process for purging voters said the law is murky. It’s worth asking the Legislature for clarity even if lawmakers can’t agree upon a way to move forward, they said.

Spindell rejected the idea, arguing it would be a waste of time to ask the Legislature and the governor to agree to a new law. He said it’s best for the issue to play out in the courts.

In a statement, WILL president Rick Esenberg said the commission still needs to change its handling of potential movers.

The commission “is free to ask the Legislature to change the law,” Esenberg said. “But until the law is changed, the commission must follow it.”

Elections security

Commissioners voted unanimously to authorize grants of up to $500 for counties to secure their official websites. Under the grant program, counties will need to upgrade their websites by the end of January, before the state Supreme Court primary election.

Counties post unofficial election results on their websites, so securing them could help prevent hackers from compromising those websites and spreading misinformation during elections.

The funding set aside for county websites comes from nearly $7 million provided by the federal government for elections security. Of those funds, the commission in September directed $1.1 million to help cities and towns secure their elections systems.

So far, the commission has approved 798 applications and about $774,000 of the $1.1 million in elections security subgrants. Of that funding:

  • $369,200 went toward providing clerks with funding to upgrade computer systems.
  • $343,200 was allocated to information technology support for localities.
  • $62,100 was directed to election security training for local elections staff.

The Elections Commission has increasingly focused on elections security since 2016, when Russian hackers scanned computer systems in Wisconsin.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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