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 Republicans say too many of them are outdated or riddled with inaccuracies and that democracy is best served with proper "maintenance" that rules out any possibility of cheating.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.