Wisconsin appeals order to purge voter registrations

MADISON — The Wisconsin Department of Justice on Tuesday appealed a judge's order to immediately purge voter registrations of more than 200,000 people in the narrowly divided swing state that's key to President Donald Trump's re-election efforts.

A judge on Friday sided with conservatives in saying the state elections commission needed to deactivate voters who didn't respond within 30 days to a mailing indicating if they have moved. Ozaukee County Circuit Judge Paul Malloy entered his order on Tuesday and the state immediately appealed.

Malloy refused to put his order on hold, but the state is expected to ask the appeals court to do that. Whether his ruling is put on hold or not will affect how quickly the voters are purged.

“It’s unfortunate the Wisconsin Elections Commission is prolonging this dispute when Judge Malloy found the state agency in clear violation of state law," said Rick Esenberg, president of the conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. It brought the lawsuit on behalf of three voters.

Esenberg filed the case in a conservative county. The state filed its appeal in a district that's based in liberal Madison. The case is expected to go all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which is controlled 5-2 by conservatives.

The case is being closely watched as the affected voters come from more heavily Democratic parts of the state. Democrats fear forcing them to re-register creates a burden and could negatively affect turnout in the 2020 presidential election. Republicans argue that removing the voters ensures the rolls are not full of people who shouldn't be voting.

The elections commission decided to wait longer than 30 days to deactivate voters because of problems in 2017 after about 343,000 voters were flagged as potential movers. More than 300,000 people who did not respond were deactivated, leading to confusion, anger and complaints. Wisconsin allows same-day voter registration, but it requires photo ID and proof of address.

But the judge found that the commission was breaking the law, which he said clearly required them to deactivate any voter who didn't respond to the mailing within 30 days.

This year's mailing went to about 7% of the state's 3.3 million registered voters.

The case is important for both sides ahead of the 2020 presidential race in narrowly divided Wisconsin, which Trump won by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016.

Next year’s presidential race isn’t the only high-stakes election that could be affected by the registration lawsuit. Wisconsin has a February primary for a seat on the highly partisan state Supreme Court. The state’s presidential primary is in April.