MADISON, WI – A Wisconsin appeals court on Tuesday put on hold an order to immediately remove up to 209,000 names from the state's voter registration rolls, handing Democrats who had fought the move a victory in the battleground state.
The appeals court sided with the bipartisan state elections commission in putting the brakes on removing any voters while the court fight continues. It also put on hold a ruling from Monday in which a judge found the commission and its three Democratic members in contempt for not proceeding with removing the voters.
The orders effectively hit the pause button on the fast-moving case and means there will be no immediate change to the state's voter registration rolls. There are a number of elections coming soon, including a February primary for a state Supreme Court seat, a primary in the special election to fill the 7th Congressional District seat and races for a host of local offices. Wisconsin's presidential primary is April 7.
The issue is unlikely to be resolved in court before the presidential election. The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin also filed a federal lawsuit to stop deactivation of the targeted voters. The league describes itself as non-partisan, but it has been on the same side as Democrats on voter access issues.
A conservative law firm that brought the case — the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty — had wanted the purge to happen immediately, even though the elections commission raised concerns about the accuracy of data used to identify voters who would have their registrations deactivated.
The law firm's president, Rick Esenberg, didn't directly address the court's order in a statement.
“What is true yesterday is true today," he said. "The Wisconsin Elections Commission isn’t following state law and we look forward to making that case in the Court of Appeals.”
The case is being closely watched, as Wisconsin is among a group of swing states being targeted by both Democrats and President Donald Trump this year. Trump narrowly won Wisconsin in 2016 by fewer than 23,000 votes, putting even more of a focus on every voter in the state.
Trump was back in the state on Tuesday night for a rally in Milwaukee, kicking off what is expected to be an intense fight to win Wisconsin.
The voter purge lawsuit argued that the state elections commission broke the law when it did not remove voters from the rolls who did not respond within 30 days to a mailing in October indicating they may have moved.
The commission wanted to wait until after the November 2020 presidential election before removing anyone because of inaccuracies found while previously attempting to identify voters who may have moved. Even if a voter has their registration deactivated, they can register again later or on Election Day when they show up at the polls, assuming they have the required documentation.
Republican commissioners at the Tuesday meeting voted to send another mailer to the targeted voters in May, telling them they would have their registrations deactivated if they didn't respond within 30 days. It failed on a deadlocked 3-3 vote, with all Democrats against.
“It's terrible and terribly disgusting the other commissioners won't do anything to clean up this list," said Republican commissioner Bob Spindell.
But Democratic member Mark Thomsen said no voter should be targeted for removal until next year, as the commission originally planned.
”We're making a mockery of ourselves," he said of the commission's renewed discussion of removing voters.
Because voters who moved were concentrated in more Democratic parts of the state, liberals argued that the lawsuit was meant to lower turnout on their side. Republicans countered that it was about reducing the likelihood of voter fraud and making sure that people who have moved are not able to vote from their previous addresses.
A judge last month sided with conservatives and ordered the removal of the voters. When the bipartisan elections commission deadlocked on proceeding with the purge, the judge on Monday found it and its three Democratic commissioners in contempt, and again ordered the voters' names removed.
Hours later, a divided Wisconsin Supreme Court declined to take the case. That shifted the fight back to the appeals court, which sided with the elections commission on Tuesday and put the judge's original ruling on hold.
A three-judge panel in the 4th District of the appeals court — Michael Fitzpatrick, JoAnne Kloppenburg and Jennifer Nashold — issued the ruling. They said they would have a follow-up order later that explains their reasoning, but that they wanted to act quickly given the contempt order and the commission's meeting.
Nashold was elected to the court last year after running unopposed. Fitzpatrick also ran unopposed and was first elected in 2017. Kloppenburg has been on the appeals court since 2012 and also ran unsuccessfully twice for the state Supreme Court with Democratic support.
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