PORT WASHINGTON, Wis. (AP) — A Wisconsin judge on Monday found the state’s bipartisan elections commission to be in contempt and ordered it to immediately begin removing up to 209,000 names from the state’s voter rolls or face fines for each day it doesn’t.
Ozaukee County Circuit Judge Paul Malloy said in his ruling that “time is of the essence in this case” and cannot wait for an appeals court or the state Supreme Court to decide the case. He also seemed peeved that commissioners hadn’t already begun deactivating the voter registrations as he ordered back in December.
“I cannot be clearer on this. They need to follow the order,” Malloy said.
The state Justice Department asked Malloy to put his order of contempt on hold pending an appeal of his ruling, but the judge denied the request.
Malloy held in contempt the commission itself and its three Democratic members because they had previously voted against moving ahead with the purge. Those three would each face a $250 fine for every day they don’t comply. The commission as a whole faces $50 fines every day the purge doesn’t happen. Three Republican commissioners who pushed for proceeding with deactivating the voters would face no penalties.
The commission’s next meeting is Tuesday, hours before President Donald Trump was due to hold a rally in Milwaukee. It previously deadlocked along party line 3-3 votes on whether to proceed with deactivating the voters.
Ann Jacobs, one of the three Democratic commissioners, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she believes the judge’s initial findings were incorrect and that she does not want to begin taking people off the rolls.
The commission has asked appeals courts to put the ruling on hold while the legal fight continues, but none of the courts have done so. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has not said yet whether it will take the case. Malloy said that’s irrelevant to his ruling.
“Nothing has told this court that it can’t act,” Malloy said. He was appointed to the bench in 2002 by then-Gov. Scott McCallum, a Republican, and he has won election three times since then.
The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin also filed a federal lawsuit to stop the purge. That lawsuit argues that it would be a violation of constitutional due process rights to deactivate the registrations of the voters without proper notice. The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and the Republican-controlled Legislature are both seeking to intervene in that lawsuit and have it dismissed.
Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, a Democrat, said he was disappointed in the ruling. But Rick Esenberg, leader of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty that brought the lawsuit, said “Court orders are not, and have never been, optional. It is our hope that today’s decision will cause the Wisconsin Elections Commission to finally follow state law.”
The case is being closely watched, as Wisconsin is a battleground state that Trump won by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016. Democrats are fighting the lawsuit, saying the purge would unfairly affect their voters. Republicans say they merely want to ensure that people who have moved are not able to vote from their old addresses.
Those bringing the lawsuit argue that the state elections commission broke the law when it did not remove voters from the rolls who did not respond within 30 days to a mailing in October indicating they may have moved.
The commission wanted to wait until after the November 2020 presidential election before removing anyone because of inaccuracies with a previous round of data identifying voters who had potentially moved. Even if a voter has their registration deactivated, they can register again later or on Election Day when they show up at the polls, assuming they have the required documentation.
Malloy last month sided with conservatives who filed the lawsuit and ordered that the voters have their registrations deactivated.
The affected voters come more heavily from Democratic areas of Wisconsin, including Milwaukee and cities with college campuses. Democrats fear forcing voters whose registration was nullified to re-register would create a burden on them and hurt turnout. Republicans argue that removing the voters would ensure that the rolls are not full of people who shouldn’t be voting.
Dozens of people — some with tape over their mouths — rallied outside the courthouse before Monday’s hearing to protest the voter registration deactivation. Organizers said the purge would unfairly affect voters of color. The Rev. Greg Lewis, who heads the get-out-the-vote group Souls to the Polls Milwaukee, said he worried that the legal fight would lead to confusion that causes some people to give up on trying to vote, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
“This is not checkers. It’s chess, and the people who are doing this understand that the frustration will cause a lot of people not to even want to vote,” he said.