By Joe Kelly
PORT WASHINGTON, Wis. (CN) – A conservative group asked a Wisconsin judge Thursday to find the state’s elections board in contempt for refusing to update voter rolls and remove thousands of people who may have moved in the critical battleground state.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, or WILL, sued the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission in November, saying it violated state law by refusing to deactivate registrations of voters who did not respond within 30 days to formal notices asking about possible address changes.
The elections commission mailed those notices to more than 230,000 voters in mid-October but had decided to wait until 2021 to update any flagged inconsistencies in the voter lists, a precaution taken partly because of a 2017 glitch that triggered the removal of tens of thousands of voters. Of those 230,000, roughly 209,000 have not requested continuation at their current address or reregistered at another one.
WILL’s lawsuit contends the board must adhere to the 30-day limit. Ozaukee County Circuit Court Judge Paul Malloy agreed with the conservative group last month and issued a writ of mandamus forcing the elections commission to change the registration status of every voter who did not respond to its October letters within the 30-day timeframe.
The elections commission, however, has maintained that its actions are in line with state law regarding updates to the voter rolls and that the statutory 30-day limit WILL wants enforced does not apply to it.
The commission appealed Malloy’s order to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals in Madison, where the case is currently before a three-judge panel. In the meantime, WILL has asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to take up the case, although the high court has not indicated whether it will do so.
The commission, which is made up of three Republicans and three Democrats, deadlocked on whether to purge the voters from rolls as recently as Monday.
WILL’s motion for contempt filed Thursday in Ozaukee County Circuit Court railed against the commission’s inaction.
“The defendants have had 20 days since this court’s oral ruling and 15 days since the written mandamus order and have still failed to comply with this court’s order and it is obvious that the defendants do not intend to take any action to comply with this court’s order,” the six-page motion states.
The group wants Malloy to impose a fine of up to $2,000 per day per defendant until they prove they are in compliance with the judge’s order or until another order is handed down. The defendants include the board and five of its members.
Rick Esenberg, founder and president of WILL, emphasized Thursday that “court orders are not optional.”
“It is astonishing to observe the Wisconsin Elections Commission act as if they are,” Esenberg said in a statement. “Despite the wishes of some, Judge Malloy’s order has not been stayed and must be enforced.”
Attorney General Josh Kaul, a Democrat who represents the elections commission in the suit, said in a statement Thursday that the Wisconsin Department of Justice “strongly disagrees with WILL’s position.”
“Both DOJ and WILL have already sought further review, and those motions are still pending,” Kaul said. “This case should not effectively be ended before the appeals process plays out.”
The elections commission said Thursday it had no immediate comment on WILL’s motion for contempt.
The fight over the Badger State’s voter rolls is intensified by several key elections in 2020, including local primaries in February and a crucial election in April for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court in which conservative Justice Daniel Kelly is up for reelection. Kelly has stated he will sit out any proceedings in the suit should the high court decide to weigh in.
The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin filed a separate federal suit over the voter rolls in December asking a federal judge to stop the purge of the voter rolls after Malloy previously blocked the League from intervening in WILL’s state action. The League’s federal suit argues deactivating the registrations from the voter rolls would be a violation of constitutional due process protections.
In addition to statewide elections this year, Wisconsin is seen as a crucial battleground state in November’s presidential election. President Donald Trump’s narrow win over Hillary Clinton in the Badger State was seen as pivotal to his upset victory in 2016.