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Wisconsin Supreme Court to hear case that could remove 129K from voter rolls

Voting by mail during coronavirus
Voting by mail during coronavirus 03:47

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that could remove about 129,000 people from the state's voter rolls ahead of the November election.  The case will be closely watched by both political parties, which are targeting the critical battleground state that President Trump won by less than 23,000 votes in 2016.

Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court deadlocked on whether to hear the case after a county judge ruled in favor of removing people from the voting rolls. The state Court of Appeals put that ruling on hold in January and eventually overturned the decision when it ruled in February that the voters should not be removed

The case stems from a letter sent in October 2019 to about 230,000 voters from the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) indicating officials believed those people may have moved from their current address. Since then, about 62,000 of those voters have either verified their address did not change or registered to vote at a new address. Another 41,600 have been deemed ineligible to vote for a variety of reasons. 

The remaining 129,000 have not yet updated their voting records and the question is whether to remove them from the active voter rolls. Those voters have a "movers" watermark next to their name in poll books, and they either need to confirm that they live at the same address or register at a new one in order to receive a ballot. 

If the court were to rule that those voters should be removed from active rolls, they could re-register either by mail, online, at a clerk's office or at the polls on Election Day. But some voting rights activists have expressed concerns about difficulty for some people to register to vote amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), a conservative law firm, filed the lawsuit last year asking the WEC to remove the voters who had not responded to the mailing about their address within 30 days. The WEC didn't want to remove voters until 12 to 24 months after the initial letter had been mailed. 

"We are pleased the Wisconsin Supreme Court has agreed to hear this critical case," said Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel of WILL. "Recent months have made clear that state agencies, like the Wisconsin Elections Commission, must be held accountable when they ignore state law." 

WEC spokesman Reid Magney declined to comment. 

Courtney Beyer, communications director for the Wisconsin Democratic Party, said in a statement to CBS News, "Trump and Wisconsin Republicans are actively working to suppress the vote." "We will continue to use every tool at our disposal to fight back against these attacks on our democracy and ensure every Wisconsinite is able to vote safely in November," she added.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court didn't hear the case in January because justices split 3-3 on whether to take it at that point. The court has seven justices, but conservative Justice Dan Kelly recused himself from the case in December because he was on the ballot in the April election. In April, Kelly said he would participate in the case once again because his election was over. 

It's not clear whether the Wisconsin Supreme Court will rule before the August 11 primary or the November 3 general election. The court's order set a period of up to 60 days for briefs to be filed in the case and it's possible oral arguments could be scheduled later this summer or early in the fall. 

Kelly is set to be replaced on the court by Jill Karofsky, a liberal judge who beat him in April's election, on August 1. When Karofsky takes the bench, conservatives will have a 4-3 majority, rather than the 5-2 majority they currently hold. 

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