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The voter registrations under dispute are concentrated in the Democratic strongholds of Milwaukee (above) and Madison.

Wisconsin's top court will decide bellwether purge vs. clean voter roll case

This year's most prominent and consequential fight over voter registration — whether Wisconsin's rolls need to be "maintained" better or are at risk of being "purged" unfairly — is approaching a climactic moment.

The state Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide the dispute, setting up a final resolution to a legal donnybrook that has transfixed good-government groups and political strategists since the fall.

The court's timetable leaves unclear whether its decision will come before November, however, when Wisconsin's 10 electoral votes will be central to the presidential outcome. The dispute is over the fate of 129,000 people whose whereabouts are in doubt. And President Trump carried the state last time by just 23,000 votes, breaking a seven-election Democratic run.

Beyond the consequence for another razor-thin election in the state, the case also raises central issues about the fairness of electoral democracy nationwide. Conservative groups say the system only works, free of fraud, if rosters of eligible voters and their addresses are kept up to date. Civil rights groups say overly aggressive culling of lists is part of a longstanding history of voter suppression.

The lawsuit was filed in November by a conservative think tank and law firm, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, alleging the Wisconsin Elections Commission was ignoring a state law requiring the removal of individuals who don't answer a so-called "movers mailing" within a month. The panel now allows people to stay on the rolls for two years after such a postcard gets sent.

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A mailing was sent in October to 232,000 people identified by the Electronic Registration Information Center, a nonpartisan and nonprofit group that many states use for maintaining registration lists. ERIC keeps track of such government paperwork as death certificates, felony sentencings, change-of-address forms and drivers' licenses.

That prompted 5,000 people to prove they were still at the address on file, 57,000 to re-register at their new homes and 42,000 to get dropped because they'd moved out of state, died, gone to prison or decided they didn't want to vote anymore.

So the heart of the dispute is now about the remaining 129,000 voters who had not been heard from as of this month. They live disproportionately in the Democratic strongholds of Milwaukee and Madison.

A trial court judge ordered the rosters culled in December and weeks later ordered elections commissioners held in contempt for not complying while they pursued their appeal. An appeals court unanimously overturned the judge in February and said the rolls should stay untouched until after the August primaries and the November election.

The state Supreme Court declined to intervene this winter, deadlocking 3-3. The seventh justice, conservative Daniel Kelly, recused himself because he was seeking re-election in April. He lost, and on Monday he was part of the majority deciding the court should now get involved.

Once his term ends in August, he will be replaced by liberal Jill Karofsky, narrowing the court's rightward tilt to 4-3. It's not clear when oral arguments or a decision will come, though, because lawyers have two months to file briefs and the court is usually in recess most of the summer.

But in a separate order, the justices declined Monday to immediately take voters off the rolls. And voters who are kicked off the rolls may re-register, in person or online, as late as Election Day.

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