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The Wisconsin Voter Purge Is a Bad Idea

With serious concerns about accuracy, removing 200,000 names from voter rolls so close to an election is an extremely risky proposition.

A Wiscon­sin appeals court on Tues­day put on hold a purge of approx­im­ately 200,000 voters from the state voter rolls. The court proceed­ings have been complic­ated, and how it will end is unclear, but this purge is a bad idea regard­less of how the courts come down on its legal­ity.

The purge might happen in 2020 (rather than in 2021, as planned by the Wiscon­sin Elec­tion Commis­sion) because an activ­ist group sued state elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors, alleging they were not purging voters aggress­ively enough. This bully­ing of elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors into purging is an alarm­ing trend. From 2008 to 2018, more than half of all federal lawsuits on purges brought by private activ­ists were actions to pres­sure states into purging more voters from the rolls. In 2017 and 2019, anti-voter activ­ists encour­aged extreme purge prac­tices by send­ing a series of letters to local elec­tion offi­cials across the coun­try, threat­en­ing legal action if the juris­dic­tions did not under­take more aggress­ive purges. In some places — includ­ing Cali­for­nia, Wiscon­sin, and Detroit — the letters were followed by lawsuits.

The Wiscon­sin purge contro­versy is happen­ing in an already highly tense envir­on­ment, as Wiscon­sin’s 2016 pres­id­en­tial vote was decided by fewer than 23,000 votes. The state passed a strict photo ID law in 2011 and cut back early voting oppor­tun­it­ies in 2011 and again in 2014.

Mean­while, other voter purge contro­ver­sies have been happen­ing across the coun­try. In Decem­ber, Geor­gia purged over 300,000 voters from its rolls. Last fall, Ohio was poised to purge 235,000 people from its rolls before it discovered that about 20 percent of the voters on the list should­n’t have been on it at all. Earlier in 2019, Texas sought to purge nearly 100,000 voters who were purportedly noncit­izens, but a federal court stopped the purge from going forward because the state was rely­ing on faulty data.

As courts in Wiscon­sin delib­er­ate on the lawful­ness of a purge there, there’s no ques­tion that, in most states, this kind of purge would viol­ate federal voting protec­tions in the National Voter Regis­tra­tion Act (NVRA). However, Wiscon­sin is exempt from that law because the state allows people to register and vote on Elec­tion Day.

Under the NVRA, a state may not remove a voter for fail­ing to respond to a notice regard­ing a poten­tial change of address until two federal elec­tions have passed. In addi­tion, the NVRA prohib­its a system­atic purge within 90 days of a federal elec­tion. These provi­sions ensure that voters have suffi­cient time to fix any mistakes by elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors before their regis­tra­tions are cancelled. If the purge goes forward in Wiscon­sin, there will be no two-cycle wait­ing period and the purge will occur with less than 90 days before the Demo­cratic pres­id­en­tial primary.

The logic behind Wiscon­sin’s exemp­tion is that Elec­tion Day regis­tra­tion mitig­ates some of the concerns that arise from sloppy purges because even a wrong­fully-purged voter can re-register on Elec­tion Day and cast a ballot that will count. But Elec­tion Day regis­tra­tion in Wiscon­sin has its limits as a correct­ive tool.

To begin with, Elec­tion Day regis­tra­tion only works if voters know that it’s Elec­tion Day. But voters removed from the rolls don’t get notices about upcom­ing votes, polling place loca­tions, and the races and issues on the ballot. And Elec­tion Day regis­trants not only must have the required photo ID, they must also present proof of resid­ence in Wiscon­sin. That’s asking a lot of a voter who never should have been removed from the rolls to begin with.

Wiscon­sin elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors were justi­fi­ably cautious. Large-scale purges are always risky because of the sheer numbers of records involved. Addi­tion­ally, the third-party inform­a­tion used to do these system­atic purges, which does not come directly from a voter, will inev­it­ably include errors. In fact, the data source used to flag the voters for this partic­u­lar purge has been used before in Wiscon­sin, and there were some undeni­able issues in accur­acy.

No one is disput­ing that voter rolls should be up-to-date and accur­ate, but large-scale voter purges based on unre­li­able data too close to an elec­tion are going to make voters right­fully concerned. Across the coun­try, elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors should be doing more to restore voter confid­ence. A massive and rushed purge in Wiscon­sin would do just the oppos­ite.

For guid­ance on proper voter list main­ten­ance, see Voter Roll Purges: Dos and Don’ts.