MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The fight over purging more than 200,000 voters registered in Wisconsin moved to federal court on Tuesday, with a new attempt to block the move in the narrowly divided swing state that’s key to President Donald Trump’s re-election efforts.
The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin filed the new lawsuit, which seeks to circumvent a state court’s ruling in favor of conservatives to do the purge. The new lawsuit asking federal courts to stop the deactivation of voters came hours after the state Department of Justice filed an appeal of the original state court ruling ordering the purge.
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.
Trump won Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016.
The new federal lawsuit argues that it would be a violation of constitutional due process rights to deactivate the registrations of the voters without proper notice. The Wisconsin Elections Commission notice told residents at risk of deactivation that they need only vote in the next election to prevent being deactivated. The league contends this is a violation of due process rights because this was not the case. Removing the voters would “be an unconstitutional about-face,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit asks that any voter facing deactivation be mailed notices telling them of that and outlining the steps they can take to avoid it. It also seeks to delay any purge of voters until after the April 2020 presidential primary election.
Wisconsin Elections Commission spokesman Reid Magney said he had not seen the federal lawsuit and had no immediate comment.
The League also sought to intervene in the state lawsuit, but the judge denied the request.
The fight over the voters began in state court, with a lawsuit brought on behalf of three voters by the conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. Ozaukee County Circuit Judge Paul Malloy ruled on Friday that the state elections commission violated the law by not deactivating all voters who did not take action within 30 days of being sent a mailing in October indicating that they may have moved.
The elections commission wanted to wait until 2021 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.
Malloy refused to put his order on hold, but the state asked the appeals court to do so Tuesday. Whether his ruling is put on hold or not will affect how quickly the voters are purged. The federal lawsuit also gives opponents of the purge a new front to fight the move.
“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, in response to the appeal.
Esenberg filed the case in a conservative county. The state filed its appeal in a district that’s based in liberal Madison.The state case is expected to go all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which is controlled 5-2 by conservatives.
This year’s mailing went to about 7% of the state’s 3.3 million registered voters.
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.
LWVWI filed a federal lawsuit to challenge a planned voter roll purge based on unreliable data. Voters had 30 days to respond to a letter about their purge status, but WI law only calls for this timeline when the purge is based on reliable data.
Shortly after the 2018 election, the outgoing WI legislature called a special session and passed several bills aimed at undermining the authority of the newly elected governor. LWVWI filed a lawsuit, contending that the session was unconstitutional.