Wisconsin court overturns ruling ordering voter purge

A Wisconsin appeals court on Friday overturned a ruling that ordered the removal of up to 209,000 people from the state’s voter rolls, handing Democrats a victory in a case they said was intended to make it more difficult for their voters to cast ballots in November.

The conservative group that brought the case immediately said it would appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The appeals court last month put the ruling, and the purge, on hold while it considered the case. The 4th District Court of Appeals ruling overturned the decision of an Ozaukee County judge who had initially ruled in favor of a conservative law firm that was seeking the purge.

The appeals court also vacated an order from that same judge that found the state Elections Commission in contempt for not moving forward with the purge.

The appeals court sent the case back to the lower court and ordered that it be dismissed.

The case has received a lot of attention because Wisconsin is among a group of swing states being targeted by Democrats and President Donald Trump this year. Trump won Wisconsin in 2016 by fewer than 23,000 votes, putting even more of a focus on every voter in the state.

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.

The appeals court said in its unanimous decision that the law in question does not refer to the Elections Commission or give any duties to it related to deactivating voters. The commission had argued that the power to do that rests with local election clerks and the appeals court agreed.

“In interpreting the Wisconsin Statutes, courts may not rewrite the plain language of the statutes the legislature has enacted,” the appeals court said. “Acceptance of the arguments of Plaintiffs would cause us to rewrite statutes enacted by the legislature, and that we cannot do.”

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and Liberty, which brought the case on behalf of three voters, said it would appeal Friday’s ruling to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. “Wisconsin deserves clean elections in 2020,” Rick Esenberg, the group’s president and general counsel, said in a statement.

The Elections Commission and the state Department of Justice, which represented the commission, had no immediate comment.

The ruling can be appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which previously declined to take the case before it was heard by the appeals court.

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.

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 have moved are not able to vote from their previous addresses.

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.

A three-judge panel in the 4th District of the appeals court — Michael Fitzpatrick, JoAnne Kloppenburg and Jennifer Nashold — issued Friday’s ruling. 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.