PORT WASHINGTON, Wis. — A Wisconsin judge on Monday found the state's election commission to be in contempt and ordered the bipartisan panel to immediately begin removing up to 209,000 names from the state's voter rolls or face hundreds of dollars in fines for each day they don't.
Judge Paul Malloy said in his ruling that “time is of the essence in this case" and cannot wait for an appeals court or the state Supreme Court to decide the case. He also appeared peeved that commissioners hadn't already begun purging voters.
"I cannot be clearer on this. They need to follow the order,” Malloy said.
The state Justice Department asked Malloy to stay his order of contempt pending an appeal of his ruling, but the judge denied the request. Malloy held the six-person commission and its three members who dissented in the case in contempt. But only the three dissenters will each face the $250 fine every they they don't comply, not the other three members. The commission as a whole, however, faces $50 fines every day the purge doesn't happen.
The commission asked appeals courts to put the ruling on hold while the legal fight continues, but none of the courts have done so. Malloy said that's irrelevant to his ruling.
“You have this court order, you have an appeal, and a petition to the Supreme Court. But nothing has told this court that it can’t act,” Malloy said.
The case is being closely watched, as Wisconsin is battleground state that President Donald Trump won by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016. Democrats are fighting the lawsuit, saying the purge would unfairly affect their voters. Republicans say they merely want to ensure that people who have moved are not able to vote from their old addresses.
Those bringing the lawsuit argue that the state elections commission, which includes an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, 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 it removed anyone because of inaccuracies with a previous round of data identifying voters who had potentially moved. 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.
Malloy last month sided with conservatives who filed the lawsuit and ordered that the voters have their registrations deactivated. The elections commission has deadlocked on when to do that, however.
The appeals court said it wouldn't take action because of the pending request before the state Supreme Court that it take the case. The high court has not said what it will do.
The affected voters come more heavily from Democratic areas of Wisconsin, including Milwaukee and cities with college campuses. Democrats fear forcing voters whose registration was nullified to re-register would create a burden on them and hurt turnout. Republicans argue that removing the voters would ensure that the rolls are not full of people who shouldn’t be voting.
The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin also filed a federal lawsuit to stop the purge. That lawsuit argues that it would be a violation of constitutional due process rights to deactivate the registrations of the voters without proper notice. The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and the Republican-controlled Legislature are both seeking to intervene in that lawsuit and have it dismissed.
Dozens of people — some with tape over their mouths — rallied outside the courthouse before Monday’s hearing to protest the purging of the voter names. Organizers said the purge would unfairly affect voters of color. The Rev. Greg Lewis, who heads the get-out-the-vote group Souls to the Polls Milwaukee, said he worried that the legal fight would lead to confusion that causes some people to give up on trying to vote, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
“This is not checkers. It’s chess, and the people who are doing this understand that the frustration will cause a lot of people not to even want to vote,” he said.