Lawsuit could deactivate 234,000 voters in Wisconsin

MADISON — More than 234,000 voters in Wisconsin would be made unable to cast their ballot unless they register again before the next election under a lawsuit being filed Wednesday that liberals fear could dampen turnout among Democrats in the 2020 presidential race.

The lawsuit could affect how many voters are able to cast ballots in both the April presidential primary and November 2020 general election in Wisconsin, a key swing state that both sides are targeting. President Donald Trump narrowly won the state by less than 23,000 votes in 2016.

The conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty alleges that the Wisconsin Elections Commission broke the law when it decided to wait up to two years to deactivate voters who may have moved. State law requires voters to respond within 30 days of receiving the October mailing or be deactivated, the lawsuit alleges.

The commission last month rejected a complaint from the group, also known as WILL, and said it was confident the commission was complying with the law. A spokesman for the commission, which is made up of an equal number of Republican and Democratic appointees, did not immediately reply to a message seeking comment Wednesday.

The commission in October mailed notices to about 234,000 voters identified as potentially having moved. They had been flagged based on a review of documents from sources such as the Post Office and Division of Motor Vehicles that indicated the person may have moved.

Voters who do not respond to the postcard asking them to confirm their address will be flagged as movers. But instead of being made unable to vote 30 days after the mailing, they will have up to two years to confirm their addresses, based on a June vote by the commission.

Elections commission staff said in a March memo that the commission had the authority to delay deactivating voters beyond 30 days because another state law gives it the ability to create rules maintaining the voter registration list. Staff said in the memo that since no voter would be removed until after the April 2021 election under its policy, there would be time to receive feedback from the Legislature about whether a law change was necessary.

Under the commission's decision, voters flagged as movers will not be deactivated ahead of the February primary election for the state Supreme Court race and numerous local offices. It will also mean they will remain registered for the April presidential primary and spring general election in which a Supreme Court justice will be elected.

The lawsuit asks a judge to require the commission to deactivate any of the 234,000 voters who received notice in October that it appears they moved and did not respond within 30 days.

The concern from liberals is that younger and lower income voters who are more likely to vote Democratic are also more likely to be flagged as movers. The result, they fear, is that more Democrats would be required to re-register than Republicans, making it more difficult for them to vote.

But in the lawsuit, the institute contends registering again is “no hardship” because voters can do it at the polls on election day. Voters must present a photo ID and proof of residence in order to register at the polls.

The institute was filing the lawsuit in Ozaukee County on Wednesday morning, said attorney Lucas Vebber. It’s representing three voters in Hubertus, Port Washington and Menomonee Falls.

There are about 3.3 million registered voters in Wisconsin out of about 4.5 million people of voting age.