MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a case seeking to purge about 129,000 voter registrations from the rolls ahead of the November presidential election after previously deadlocking on whether to get involved.
Democrats oppose the voter purge, arguing it is intended to make it more difficult for their voters to cast ballots. Conservatives who brought the lawsuit argue that the integrity of the vote is at stake, saying that when records indicate voters may have moved, their registrations should be deactivated.
The case is closely watched in battleground Wisconsin, a state President Donald Trump won by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016. Winning Wisconsin is a key part of the strategy for both Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
The voter purge case was brought on behalf of three voters by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative law firm. It won in Ozaukee County, with a judge ordering in January that the purge take place immediately. The Supreme Court deadlocked then when asked to immediately take the case. In February, a state appeals court reversed the lower court’s ruling, stopped the purge and dismissed the case.
That set up the latest request made in March for the Supreme Court to hear the case, which it agreed to do on Monday. It is likely to hear arguments this summer or early fall and could issue a ruling before the November election.
No voters have been deactivated while the legal fight continues. The appeal argues that if voters are to be deactivated before the Aug. 11 primary, an order would have to be issued by June 19 to ensure no absentee ballots are mailed to people who are removed from the rolls.
Wisconsin Elections Commission spokesman Reid Magney declined to comment.
Rick Esenberg, president of the law firm that brought the lawsuit, said he was pleased the Supreme Court agreed to hear what he calls a “critical case.”
The court’s involvement has hinged on the decision in January by conservative Justice Dan Kelly not to participate. He decided against it then because he was a candidate for another term on the court, with elections in February and April, and he didn’t want to create the appearance of a conflict of interest.
The court deadlocked 3-3 without Kelly on whether to take the case in January.
Kelly was defeated in the April election but remains on the court until August. After his loss, Kelly said the reason he recused himself in the voter purge case no longer existed and he had a duty to consider every case before the court that he ethically can.
The court’s order Monday did not say how many justices supported or opposed taking the appeal. But given the briefing schedule set Monday, it is unlikely to hear the case before Kelly is replaced in August.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty argues that the Wisconsin Elections Commission broke the law when it refused to remove voters from the rolls who didn’t respond within 30 days to an October mailing inquiring about whether they had 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.
Because voters who moved were concentrated in more Democratic areas 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 moved are not able to vote from their previous addresses.
The mailing went to about 232,000 voters, but thousands of them have since updated their status or become deactivated, leaving about 129,000 that would be impacted by the lawsuit. Any voter whose registration is deactivated also can register at the polls on Election Day.
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