Wisconsin’s Conservative Voter Purge Fight Rages On

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), a conservative think tank, is suing the state of Wisconsin to demand that it continue the practice, begun under former Governor Scott Walker, of purging voter registrations in cases where the state believes registered voters have changed addresses. 

WILL’s argument is that a 2015 law requires Wisconsin to become a member of a multi-state group called the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), which uses “modern ‘big data’ matching and analytics” to find voters who have “moved since their last registration.”

According to a 2016 Wisconsin Election Commission (WEC) memo, this means Wisconsin must submit DMV address records every sixty days that are then cross-checked with the master state registration list. (In addition, ERIC also gets federal information from U.S. Postal Service and the Social Security Administration to detect if someone has moved or died.)

If WILL is truly interested in keeping voter registrations current, why don’t they ever try to make voting easier?

ERIC reports back to WEC, every two years, a list of voter registrations that should be purged because the addresses don’t match. WEC then mails out postcards to the addresses on file, and the voter registration is purged of voters who do not respond within thirty days.

In 2017, the “movers list” sent out by ERIC had a huge impact on Wisconsin’s voter registrations. The Center for Media Democracy has calculated that this led to 697,363 registrations, or 19 percent of all registrations, being purged between January 2017 and February 2018. The group also found that “significantly more voters were purged from the rolls in Democratic leaning counties than Republican leaning counties.”

Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest county and home to the most African Americans in the state, lost 150,954 voters, or 26 percent of its voter registrations.

This almost tipped the election in former governor Scott Walker’s favor in 2018—he ended up losing by only 29,277 votes.

WILL and others argue that we need to keep doing this to prevent voters from committing a felony by using an old address to vote more than once. Plus, they argue that Wisconsin is obligated to take certain actions after they receive the “movers list,” to maintain its membership in ERIC. (As of this writing, Wisconsin is still listed as a member of ERIC, despite WILL’s claims that Wisconsin’s failure to purge registration has somehow endangered it’s membership in the group and flouted the 2015 law.)

Opponents note that none of this is necessary, because there is no evidence of significant voter fraud in Wisconsin, a swing state that narrowing voted for Trump in 2016. They say the error rate (at least 14 percent according to the WEC) for the voter-purging process is too great, and will disproportionately purge registrations of voters who are more likely to vote Democrat. This is because people who have lived in the same address for decades are very unlikely to be accidentally purged and they’re also much more likely to be older, whiter, richer . . . and vote Republican.

I can speak with authority about these voter registration purges, because it happened to me.


In Wisconsin, you get your driver’s license renewed every ten years. I moved to my current address in 2009, but had renewed my license in 2008 at my old address. When I went to vote in 2018, even though I had been voting regularly at the precinct for nine years and my address hadn’t changed in all that time, I was told my registration had been purged because it was flagged by ERIC.

Apparently, something was triggered when I updated my address on my driver’s license.  Because I live in a small, rural precinct, where there is never more than a two-to-three-minute wait at the polling place, it only took ten minutes for me to resolve the situation and vote.

But what happens to the guy that waits for two hours to vote only to be told he can’t because his registration has been pulled? He’s not very likely to go wait another two hours to get it straightened out.

And because long lines to vote only happen in urban areas where most non-whites live, the result of the voter purges is that  fewer people of color will vote. And this is on top of requiring people who don’t drive—disproportionately African Americans—to go to the DMV to get a photo ID to vote.

In fact, many people of color in Wisconsin don’t even have the legal right to vote. The state has the nation’s worst racial disparities when it comes to incarceration, and those in prison or still “on papers” can’t vote. One in seven African American males are ineligible to vote because they are entangled in Wisconsin’s legal system.

Yet, WILL is adamant that the voter-list purge continue.

The group went to a sympathetic conservative circuit court judge in Ozaukee County last fall and won the first round. On January 7, the state court of appeals declined to take the case because the Wisconsin Supreme Court is considering taking the case directly. And the Supreme Court has a 5-2 conservative majority; even with one conservative justice pledging to recuse, it’s pretty much a slam dunk. 

Because long lines to vote only happen in urban areas where most non-whites live, the result of the voter purges is that  fewer people of color will vote.

In questions submitted by email, I asked Rick Esenberg, the founder and current president of WILL, about his group’s involvement in this issue. He argued that it is merely “a very modest attempt to clean up voter rolls which are inflated all over the country. It is not a good practice to have hundreds of thousands of inaccurate registrations. Given that people can register at the polls, the hysteria with which this modest effort is being greeted feeds into GOP suspicions that Democrats really do want to cheat.”

Esenberg conceded some people will erroneously have their registrations culled, but denied it would hurt Democrats in general or people of color in particular. “No one knows the partisan or demographic make-up of the small percentage who have not moved,” he told me.

Oh, yes! Chef’s kiss! From afar, it may look, quack, and swim like the kind of voters WILL likes to disenfranchise—but remember, they’re nonpartisan and just happen to be obsessed with purging voter registrations that may be stale.

If WILL is truly interested in keeping voter registrations current, why don’t they ever try to make voting easier? Instead, they’re trying to make an already anachronistic system harder to navigate.

While the group may claim to not be intentionally going after mostly Dem voters, I’m willing to bet it’s not old, white Republicans who are in jeopardy of having their voter registrations purged.

And WILL knows it.  

Remember: Where there’s a WILL, there is a way to disenfranchise citizens who conservatives don’t want voting.

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