The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled on Friday, April 9, that the state does not need to remove about 70,000 people from the voter rolls who were listed as possibly having moved in 2019 — a victory for Democrats who had fought the switch vehemently.

The contentious voter rolls case has been circling the courts since late 2019, with the Supreme Court agreeing to hear it in June.

The court ruled 5-2 in favor of a court of appeals decision that the Wisconsin Elections Commission was not required to exclude the voters from the rolls. 

As a result, they overturned a 2019 ruling by an Ozaukee County Circuit Court judge requiring the state’s Elections Commission to deactivate thousands of registered voters who were flagged by a national database potentially having moved. The case was ordered to be dismissed by the Supreme Court.

The majority opinion, written by Hagedorn, stated that Wisconsin law grants local election officials, not the state commission, the authority to alter a voter’s registration status and chastised the plaintiff in the case for making legal claims that he said went against a straightforward reading of the law.

“As the surrounding context, definitions, and text make clear, these duties are the responsibility of municipal clerks and a municipal board of election commissioners. The commission has no mandatory duties under (state law), and therefore cannot be compelled to act,” Hagedorn wrote, adding that the plaintiff’s legal case ignores almost every foundational principle of statutory interpretation.

Rebecca Bradley and Annette Ziegler, both conservatives, voted no. In response to the majority opinion, Bradley said that the Wisconsin Elections Commission is “responsible for the design and maintenance of the official registration list,” and that the commission should purge the voters.

Plaintiffs were sponsored by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative think tank (WILL).

To keep voter lists clean, Republicans required the Supreme Court to purge voters accused of traveling. WILL argued that the state should maintain order in its voter rolls by excluding voters who might no longer live at the addresses listed on their voter registers.

WILL president and general counsel Rick Esenberg said in a statement that it is now up to the Legislature to amend state legislation to exclude people who have withdrawn from the voter rolls.

“This is a disappointing setback for those who expect Wisconsin state agencies to follow the law,” Esenberg stated. “The court held today that the Legislature created a duty and failed to provide an effective way for that duty to be carried out or enforced by voters. We respectfully disagree.”

The case was first filed in 2019, and there were about 232,000 people on the list at the time. According to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, none of those who remain voted in the 2016 presidential election.

The court ruled that local election authorities, not the state election commission, were responsible for excluding voters from voter rolls.

“There is no credible argument that it does” apply to the Commission, Justice Brian Hagedorn wrote for the majority.

Dissenting judges argued that cleaning up voter lists for people who have moved is the responsibility of both state and local authorities.

“The majority’s decision leaves the administration of Wisconsin’s election law in flux, at least with respect to ensuring the accuracy of the voter rolls,” Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote for the minority.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat, praised the result, saying that the “mass removal of legitimately registered voters would have been shamefully unfair.”

“I appreciate the Supreme Court’s conclusion that the authority and responsibility to maintain voter rolls belongs to local elections officials,” Barrett said.

Following the election on November 3, 2020, several election-related cases were brought on behalf of former President Donald Trump in Wisconsin. 


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