IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Conservatives seek immediate purge of over 200,000 voters in Wisconsin

Democrats in the key 2020 state are fighting the effort to slash the registration rolls in court.
Image: A sign for a polling place near the state capitol in Madison, Wis., on Nov. 6, 2018.
A sign for a polling place near the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, on Nov. 6, 2018.Nick Oxford / Reuters file

MADISON, Wis. — A conservative law firm on Thursday asked a judge to find the Wisconsin Elections Commission in contempt and impose $12,000 a day in fines until it purges more than 200,000 voters from the rolls, a move Democrats are fighting in the battleground state.

A judge last month ordered the purge of voters who may have moved and didn't respond within 30 days to notification sent by the Elections Commission in October. The bipartisan commission has deadlocked twice on attempts by Republicans to carry out the purge immediately while an appeal is pending.

Rick Esenberg, leader of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which brought the lawsuit, said the commission must purge the voters now. The judge ruled last month that the commission was breaking state law by not removing voters who didn't respond to the mailing in October asking that they confirm their addresses.

"Court orders are not suggestions," Esenberg said on WISN-AM. "They are not rendered inoperative by the fact that you filed an appeal."

Esenberg filed a motion Thursday in Ozaukee County Court asking the judge to fine the commission and five of the six commissioners $2,000 apiece, or $12,000 in total each day, for being in contempt. The sixth commissioner, who wasn't cited, is a Republican who wasn't on the panel when the legal fight began.

Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, who is representing the Elections Commission, said it "strongly disagrees" with arguments in the contempt motion.

"This case should not effectively be ended before the appeals process plays out," Kaul said in a statement.

The affected voters come more heavily from Democratic areas of Wisconsin, a key state in the presidential election. President Donald Trump narrowly won Wisconsin in 2016, by fewer than 23,000 votes, and it's expected to be one of the most hotly contested states again this year.

Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics

Democrats fear that forcing voters whose registrations were nullified to re-register would create a burden on them and hurt turnout. Republicans argue that removing the voters would ensure that the rolls aren't full of people who shouldn't be voting.

Esenberg's group has asked that the conservative-controlled state Supreme Court immediately take the state's appeal. The case is before a state appeals court. The commission has asked the appeals court to put the original ruling on hold, but it hasn't yet acted. The Supreme Court hasn't said yet whether it will take the case.

The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin also has filed a federal lawsuit to stop the purge, arguing that it would be a violation of constitutional due process rights to deactivate the registrations of the voters without proper notice.

The Elections Commission mailed about 232,500 voters in October to tell them that records indicated that they had moved and that they needed to verify that the addresses where they were registered to vote were current. About 209,000 have not requested continuation at their current addresses or re-registered at other ones.