Resolving for good what had been the biggest fight in years over voter rolls, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Friday against making the state aggressively cull its registration lists.
The 5-2 decision means an estimated 72,000 people technically remain eligible to vote next year, when the state expects to host two of the hottest Senate and governor's races in the country. But that seeming victory for the cause of easy access to the ballot box may prove entirely symbolic: The Wisconsin Elections Commission says that not one of those people voted in the presidential election last year, suggesting they may all have died or moved out of state and might not really deserve spots on the roster any more.
That mixed outcome echoes the sharp partisan divide nationwide over voter rolls. Republicans say too many of them are outdated or riddled with inaccuracies and that democracy is best served with proper "maintenance" that rules out any possibility of cheating. Democrats say that the risk of fraud does not merit sweeping "purges" that would end up denying eligible but infrequent voters their rights.
The suit focus on a state law that regulates voter registration and applies to county officials only, not the state's election administrators, the high court majority concluded in an opinion that ended more than two years of litigation.
In early 2019, the bipartisan Elections Commission sent letters to about 232,000 voters who it believed might have changed Wisconsin addresses, left the state or passed away. It asked them to register at their new address or confirm they were no longer eligible in the state. But the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty sued, arguing the state had to drop all those people from the rolls right away.
A judge in suburban Milwaukee agreed, but a state appeals court reversed his decision and the state's top court heard arguments in the case just before Election Day.
By that time, the list of questionable voters had been reduced by nearly three-quarters. Almost 160,000 either registered at a new address, said they hadn't moved, said they had moved, went to prison, were revealed to be deceased or came off the rolls for other reasons.
The remaining 72,000 voters were scheduled to come off the rolls this spring. Meagan Wolfe, the commission's director, said the agency would review the decision to determine how to treat those names now.
But the ruling's long-term effect may be to give municipal clerks as long as 18 months to decide when to cull people from registration lists in one of the nation's premier political battlegrounds. Last fall, for example, President Biden carried the state with just 21,000 votes to spare out of 3.2 million cast, an outcome that survived a two-county recount and numerous lawsuits. Four years before, Donald Trump won its 10 electoral votes by a similarly tiny margin.
"This decision is a clear win for Wisconsin voters," Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul said.
The law in question says voters should come off the rolls if they have not responded within 30 days to notifications after there is reliable information they have moved. If the court had ruled the opposite way, thousands of deactivated registrations would have happened automatically every two years.
The decision was authored by Justice Brian Hagedorn, a Republican who was elected last year and has emerged as a swing vote on the court.
While the number of major sporting events roiled by Georgia's voting law looks to hold steady, now that it's expanded to two, the number of lawsuits to reverse the new restrictions keeps steadily growing.
The Masters got underway Thursday, but not before the Augusta National Golf Club's reputation as proudly insulated from modernity got rattled by the large number of golfers and the club's own chairman speaking out about the biggest civil rights story of the year.
At the same time, civic engagement groups that sent millions of absentee ballot applications to Georgians last year sued to block provisions of the law they alleged would unconstitutionally curtail such outreach. It was the fifth such federal suit filed in the two weeks since Gov. Brian Kemp signed the measure, and more are in the works.
The Republicans in charge of the state government, starting with the governor, have vowed to stand by the law — repudiating those in the business and sports worlds who have protested it and committing to fight all such litigation vigorously.
And they have recently notched a considerable courthouse victory.
A federal judge last week dismissed many of the claims in what had been the most prominent voting rights lawsuit against the state before last month: Fair Fight, a voting organization founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams following her loss to Kemp in the 2018 governor's race, alleged that a raft of laws already on the books in 2018 amounted to unconstitutional voter suppression.
The decision was little-noticed while attention was focused on Major League Baseball moving this summer's All-Star Game out of Atlanta to protest the new law, and then on how the denouncements by major Georgia employers Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines prompted Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell to urge corporations to "stay out of politics" except for keeping their contributions flowing.
District Judge Steve Jones tossed Fair Fight's challenge to the state's "use it or lose it" law, which cancels the registrations of people who don't vote for several years. He also dismissed complaints that too few voting machines are routinely assigned to majority-Black precincts, poll worker training is slipshod and standards for rejecting completed ballots are too strict.
The most prominent challenge he allowed to go to trial argues against the law requiring an exact match between the information on registration forms and what's in state databases, down to using a nickname or dropping a middle initial. This policy prompted 53,000 people to have their applications rejected in 2018.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday challenges a provision in the new law that says independent groups may only send vote-by-mail applications to Georgians who have not already requested a ballot or voted.
Lawmakers say the purpose is to avoid a repeat of last fall, when voters claimed confusion from the multitude of applications arriving from get-out-the-vote groups — even after they'd already put in a request to vote absentee. The lead plaintiffs, the Voter Participation Center and the Center for Voter Information, say their First Amendment rights are about to get trampled.
The four other lawsuits filed against the new measure challenge its limits on drop boxes, new ID requirements for absentee voters, ballot request deadlines and a ban on volunteers handing out food and water to voters waiting in line.
Augusta Chairman Fred Ridley, delivering his annual "State of the Masters'' address on Monday, broke with tradition by commenting on non-golf headlines, saying calls for a Masters boycott would be counterproductive before not quite explicitly repudiating the new law.
"I believe, as does everyone in our organization, that the right to vote is fundamental in our democratic society," Ridley said. "No one should be disadvantaged in exercising that right, and it is critical that all citizens have confidence in the electoral process."
The last line appears to be a nod to the stated rationale of Republicans in the General Assembly. While critics of the new rules say they are a craven response to the disproved conspiracy theories of former President Donald Trump (the first GOP nominee to lose the state in 28 years), its sponsors assert they have both bolstered election integrity and made it easier to vote in Georgia than before — mainly by expanding the timetable for early in-person balloting.
Many of the golfers participating in the Masters, asked about the law and voting equality, expressed support for strong voting rights without condemning the statute.
"I'm all for getting people to get out and vote and to have a great democracy, and I've chosen to live in this country because I believe this country is the best country," said Rory McIlroy, who was born in Northern Ireland.
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The pace of the drive to curb voting across the country is surging, despite the polarizing reaction to the sweeping election restrictions just enacted in Georgia.
The numbers so frequently cited with alarm by voting rights advocates in recent weeks — 253 bills proposed to make it tougher to participate in democracy in 43 states — were calculated by the Brennan Center for Justice. But the progressive think tank reported Thursday that those metrics have become woefully outdated:
In little more than a month, it calculated, the amount of restrictive legislation has soared 43 percent — to 361 bills now pending in 47 legislatures, almost all proposed by Republicans.
Many of the measures stand no chance of enactment, especially those proposed in Democratic-run capitals. And the number of measures proposed to enhance voting rights has also gone up in the past month, while Virginia, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Montana have all enacted laws to ease ballot access to various degrees.
But democracy reform advocates generally see the legislative activity as a cause for much more pessimism than optimism, especially because momentum for restrictive bills has been growing in Republican-run states that are electoral battlegrounds and have large shares of Black and Latino voters.
Just this week, bills to limit voting by mail, intensify voter ID requirements and otherwise complicate access to the ballot box have advanced in Texas, Arizona, Michigan, Tennessee and Kansas.
Their authors all say their motive is to boost election security and prevent cheating, even though an exhaustive search for evidence of fraud in 2020 turned up nothing of consequence after President Donald Trump claimed he'd been robbed of re-election.
Democrats say the effort is really about suppressing turnout in order to boost GOP prospects at the polls. They say the only silver lining is to underscore the urgency of creating comprehensive federal rules making it easy to register and vote nationwide.
That's the core goal of the party's good-governance package — dubbed the For the People Act, and labeled HR 1 and S 1 in the respective chambers — which has passed the House but faces a blockade in the Senate so long as the filibuster remains in full force.
Enactment would supersede most election rules in the states — including the bulk of the multifaceted package enacted last week in newly purple Georgia, much of a similarly sweeping law that went on the books last month in Iowa, the fresh voter ID laws in Arkansas and a new law making it easier to purge voter rolls in Utah.
If Congress deadlocks on its bill, the future of voting rights will be fought entirely in state capitals. Fearing that outcome, the UCLA Voting Rights Project this week released model legislation for progressive lawmakers to propose to bolster access to the ballot.
And iVote, a liberal advocacy group that's spent generously in recent campaign years, announced plans to raise and spend $10 million in 2022 to defeat state legislators behind restrictive legislation.
"Legislators in Georgia and across the country should know that if you use the power of your office to make it harder for people to vote, we'll make sure you no longer hold office," said the group's president, Ellen Kurz.
Although Biden last fall became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state in seven elections, and Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in January took both the state's Senate seats from the GOP, Republicans still have solid control of the General Assembly.
Many of Georgia's most prominent companies stayed on the sidelines as the voting curbs measure advanced. But under pressure from their customers, a coalition of powerful Black executives and civil rights groups — who have already filed three different federal lawsuits against the law — both Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines on Wednesday denounced the new rules.
"The entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie: that there was widespread voter fraud in Georgia in the 2020 elections," said Delta CEO Ed Bastian. "This is simply not true. Unfortunately, that excuse is being used in states across the nation that are attempting to pass similar legislation to restrict voting rights."
President Biden on Wednesday said he would "strongly support" Major League Baseball moving its All-Star Game from Atlanta this summer to protest the new law. On Thursday GOP Gov. Brain Kemp called that idea "ridiculous."
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