In February 2019, Chris Cascio changed apartments in anticipation of the birth of his daughter.
Cascio, an assistant journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, moved one floor down in his building to a two-bedroom apartment. Aside from his unit number, Cascio’s Madison street address and ZIP code stayed the same.
One year later, as he planned to participate in Wisconsin’s April 2020 primary, a reporter notified him he was on a list of voters set to be removed from the state’s rolls.
During a hectic year of balancing his teaching duties with his responsibilities as a new parent, Cascio forgot to update the slight change in his address — which Wisconsin requires voters to do whenever they move to a different residence to maintain their eligibility.
While Cascio eventually re-registered and cast his ballot, the prospect of losing his right to vote maddened him.
“It’s a little frustrating from the point of view that it’s not like I moved from Madison to Milwaukee and I would be in a different voter area,” Cascio said. “I’m in the same building, literally.”
The list that triggered the need for Cascio to re-register is at the heart of a raging legal battle between those who insist that Wisconsin deactivate voters en masse if they are on the list of registrants who may have moved — and those who argue such a move is tantamount to voter suppression.
In February, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed a lower-court order to deactivate 232,579 Wisconsin voters. Since then, 57,088 voters have registered at new addresses, and 4,709 voters verified they have not moved, the Wisconsin Elections Commission says. Another 41,637 are considered “in-active.” But as of late May, the status of 129,151 remained unknown, as those registrants had not responded to a mailing asking them to re-register, the report said.
On Monday, the conservative-leaning Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed to hear the lawsuit filed by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative public interest law firm. It is unclear whether the closely watched decision would come before the November election, when Wisconsin is expected to play a pivotal role in the race for president.
Meanwhile, multiple court cases filed in Wisconsin and across the United States ahead of the fall election illustrate the tension between maintaining clean and accurate voter rolls and promoting accessibility for all.
Conservative interest groups, including Judicial Watch and the Public Interest Legal Foundation, have spearheaded the movement to purge registrants whom they say are dead or duplicates.
The groups are pressuring local and state election officials to engage in more stringent purging practices by threatening legal action or filing lawsuits in Colorado, California, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
And although Wisconsin has same-day registration, those who oppose mass deactivation say some voters may not have the required documentation to re-register on Election Day.
State law meaning disputed
Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel of WILL, said he sued after being approached by people who felt the state was not following state law regarding voter roll maintenance.
WILL’s lawsuit in Ozaukee County argued the Elections Commission is required to deactivate voters within 30 days of receiving “reliable information” that voters have moved. The lawsuit seeks to force election officials to remove voters who did not respond to the mailing asking them to update their registration.
“If you have moved, you cannot vote at that (address),” Esenberg said. “That’s the full law. And your registration should be deactivated because you can’t use it to vote. You have to re-register at a new address.”
Elections Commission spokesman Reid Magney says that is the wrong interpretation. The law clearly states that the requirement to deactivate voters applies to municipal clerks and the Milwaukee Election Commission — not his agency, Magney said.
That law mandates that voters be removed from the rolls if they do not respond to a notice asking them to update or confirm their current address within a 30-day period. Whether that law applies to the state Elections Commission remains a point of contention in the lawsuit now before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
In 2018, the agency deactivated more than 300,000 voters suspected of moving without updating their addresses but later reactivated 24,270 individuals mistakenly put on the list. This time around, the commission decided to wait 12 to 24 months before deactivating voters, noting in an appeal that the movers list is not foolproof.
But Esenberg called the commission’s self-imposed deadline illegitimate.
“Rules matter and ad hoc departures from the rules are the type of thing that undermine public confidence,” Esenberg said. “They allow one set of partisans to accuse another set of partisans of cheating.”
The lawsuit has generated just such finger-pointing. An analysis by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that Democratic-leaning strongholds made up nine of the top 10 locations that would be most affected by the purge.
Another investigation conducted by The Guardian determined that individuals who resided in ZIP codes densely populated by students or African-Americans were twice as likely to be removed from the rolls. Those groups also tend to vote Democratic.
Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin, disputed WILL’s assertion that the voter purge would deter fraud. Esenberg acknowledged the true extent of electoral fraud cannot be determined.
Wisconsin does have a handful of suspected fraud cases among the roughly 3 million votes cast in state general elections. A friend of the court brief filed on behalf of WILL in the Supreme Court cited four cases of multiple voting and one case of voting in the wrong jurisdiction prosecuted in Wisconsin since 2012.
Heck, whose group seeks to ensure elected officials serve the interests of the public, called concerns about fraud a “myth,” stating, “Disenfranchisement is their real goal.”
State not subject to
federal registration law
The ongoing litigation highlights Wisconsin’s unique position as one of six states exempt from the National Voter Registration Act due to same-day voter registration. As an exempt state, Wisconsin is not required to follow NVRA guidelines, which put the responsibility on state governments to develop policies for voter maintenance and voter registration practices.
The NVRA protects voters who may have moved or who vote infrequently from being taken off voter rolls without notification. In states covered by the law, people who move within the state “cannot just be removed from the voter list,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, which works to improve election administration.
But in Wisconsin, even switching apartment units within the same building necessitates voters to update their voter information, as Cascio found.
“If I move within any state other than Wisconsin, there’s never a moment where I am not an eligible voter in that state,” Becker said. “In Wisconsin, if you move across the street, they’re saying you’ve lost your registration and have to re-register.”
Group at center of dispute
Wisconsin is a member of the Electronic Registration Information Center, a voluntary multi-state consortium founded to reduce long lines at the polls by encouraging citizens to register early and to keep those registrations current.
Under ERIC, 30 states share information with ERIC from a variety of databases to generate lists of voters who may have moved or died, said Becker, a board member and one of the founders of ERIC.
ERIC “can take a record on someone named David Becker on one file and information on a David Becker on another file and can say with a high degree of confidence this is the same human being or these are two different David Beckers,” he said.
Every other year, the Elections Commission sends mailings to people who appear to have moved and asks them to update or confirm the current address. However, Cascio does not recall getting a postcard. Neither does UW-Madison senior Carissa DeLain.
DeLain, who has lived at only two addresses, said her parents in Appleton and her roommates in Madison could not recall seeing the mailing.
“It’s not something I would have ignored,” DeLain said. “I’m pretty politically engaged and so is my mom, and neither of us would ever have thrown anything out. It’s deeply upsetting I didn’t get (the postcard).”
DeLain was registered in Madison and this fall changed her registration back to her Appleton residence. “I don’t think a single notification for voter registration is enough,” she said.
Rick Banks, political director for Black Leaders Organizing for Communities in Milwaukee, said these voter roll purges disproportionately affect minority communities. Banks’ group works to “improve the quality of life and economic wellbeing of the black community in Milwaukee.”
Banks favors automatic registration for all eligible voters. “This current system,” he said, “it just facilitates voter suppression.”
Jahana Azodi of Madison was accurately targeted by the Elections Commission because she has moved twice within the past six months. However, Azodi disagrees with mass deactivations.
Being threatened with deactivation “just makes me want to vote more,” said Azodi, who tends to vote Democratic. “It also makes me want to donate more to voting rights groups and anti-gerrymandering groups.”
Attorney: Postcards too vague
The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin also filed a federal lawsuit over the proposed mass voter deactivation pushed by WILL — but that case was dismissed in early April.
That lawsuit argued the postcards sent to voters in October 2019 did not explicitly provide a deadline and failed to inform voters of the consequences of not re-registering or updating their information. The league’s Madison attorney, Doug Poland, calls that a violation of their right to due process.
Poland says if Wisconsin’s high court orders an immediate purge — without sending a “new and constitutionally proper letter” warning voters — the group would likely re-file the federal complaint.
Esenberg of WILL says unless voter rolls are kept up to date, there is a risk of lack of public confidence in the outcome and fraud or improperly cast votes.
For her part, DeLain fears an effort to “trick people into not being able to vote.”
University of Wisconsin-Madison student Dana Munro contributed to the reporting. This story was produced as part of an investigative reporting class at the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication under the direction of Wisconsin Watch Managing Editor Dee J. Hall. Wisconsin Watch’s collaborations with journalism students are funded in part by the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment at UW-Madison. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.