The Nov. 6 elections already are drawing lots of voters.
Janesville City Clerk Dave Godek said he’s seen a lot of absentee voting, and he expects absentee voting to exceed the 2014 midterm election.
“All the clerks are telling me they’re getting a lot more absentee ballots (than two years ago),” said Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson, speaking for the county’s municipal clerks.
The early interest could presage a big turnout Nov. 6.
But a key to all this voting is voter registration, and a new way of purging voter lists is inserting a question mark into the process.
The state has always purged voter lists. Every two years, officials remove those who hadn’t voted in four years. The assumption is that the purge removes those who had died or moved without re-registering. Those who simply hadn’t voted or had moved had to re-register before voting again.
The last purge of this kind happened in summer 2017. Postcards were sent to voters who were being purged, notifying them to re-register if needed.
Now, there’s a new, additional purge, mandated by a new state law. State elections officials removed names from voter rolls in January based on database research conducted by an organization called Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC.
ERIC checks state Division of Motor Vehicles and national postal address-change information to find people who have moved since the last election.
Voters who were purged were sent postcards so they could re-register if needed. Very few did, Tollefson said.
ERIC says the process makes voter lists more accurate.
ERIC checks whether voters have moved to another state. If they have, they could potentially vote in two states, something ERIC seeks to prevent.
Tollefson said she has never heard of a local case of someone committing the crime of voting in two states.
The January purge and the state's regular biennial purging of voters lists likely had a hand in the following statistics: As of Wednesday, 82,105 Rock County residents were registered to vote.
At about the same time two years ago, more than 90,000 were registered, Tollefson said.
Tollefson can’t say exactly why registrations are lagging, but she is heartened by a recent surge in registrations.
The number of voter registrations from Sept. 1 through Oct. 10 in 2016 was 903.
The number of registrations in the same period this year: 1,589.
“Everybody said they’re getting tons of registrations online,” Tollefson said Wednesday after a meeting of municipal clerks.
Registration as well as absentee voting can now be done online through the state’s voter portal, myvote.wi.gov.
Online registration ends Wednesday, but there’s plenty of time to register at municipal clerks’ offices. That continues through Friday, Nov. 2.
And people can register on Election Day.
More than 7,000 Rock County residents registered on Election Day 2016, Tollefson said.
Still, will the ERIC-based purge have an effect on the number of voters Nov. 6? Tollefson is not concerned, but ERIC was involved in a near-snafu in Rock County.
ERIC sends its postcards to street addresses, but in Footville, everyone uses a post office box, Tollefson said. So the postcards were delivered to the Footville village clerk.
To fix that, Tollefson sent a list of post office box addresses to the clerk, who made labels and re-sent the postcards.
Tollefson, the former clerk for the town of Harmony, said she checked the ERIC purge list for the area she knows best. She checked property records, and all of those who had been removed from the Harmony poll list had sold their house, or they were of college age and likely had moved out of their parents’ homes, or were retirees who likely had moved south.
Concerns that the ERIC process might not be perfect led officials to create “supplemental poll lists” of purged voters. The list in Rock County had 5,584 names as of Thursday. The list is updated as people renew their registrations, so some names have been returned to the local poll books since January.
If people come to the polls and find out they aren’t listed in the poll book, poll workers can find their names in the supplemental list, and if they haven’t moved, they will still vote without re-registering.
Tollefson said about 30 Rock County voters in the February and April elections and another 30 in the August primaries found out at the polls they had been removed from their local poll books.
But poll workers checked the supplemental list, and those voters were allowed to vote without having to re-register, Tollefson said.
Tollefson expects this will happen to even more people Nov. 6 because many people vote only in November elections.
In Milwaukee, dozens of voters discovered during the primary election last February that they had been removed from the poll books, even though they had not moved.
Tollefson recalled that she had a booth at the Janesville senior fair before the 2016 elections, and the most common question she got was, “Who do I vote for?”
There was none of that at this year’s senior fair, when the most common questions were, “How do I make sure I’m registered to vote?” and “How do I get an absentee ballot?” Tollefson said.
“That’s a big switch,” and it might be a sign of a voter surge, Tollefson suggested.
But that won’t be known until election night.
“We do have a lot of registrations on Election Day. I just think we’re going to have a lot more this year,” Tollefson said.
Those who wait until Election Day to register have every right to do so, but they might have to wait in line. Registering before Election Day would make their lives easier, Tollefson said, and it’s an easy process.
Tollefson said she has helped people register using the online process, and it took about five minutes.
But in anticipation of an Election Day surge, municipal clerks are hiring extra poll workers, Tollefson said, and some are recruiting high school students, as well.
EDITOR'S NOTE: On Oct. 15, this story was changed to reflect the following.
A story about the state of Wisconsin’s purging of voter rolls on Pages 1A and 2A Sunday mischaracterized the role of the Electronic Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, in the process.
The state removes voters from voter rolls. ERIC has no power to do so. ERIC provided the data that led to the removal of voters from the lists in January—because they moved or didn’t respond to a post card.
Carolyn Blanchard Allen
Joyce Reiser Atkinson
Elizabeth “Betty” Brushwood
Frances C. Choate
Evalyn Dorothy Hagen
Beverly Yvonne (Bryant) Levihn
David John Matson
James C. Morrison
Douglas Howard Parker
Todd Anthony Rittenhouse
Larry A. Scheldrup
Bruce “Duke” Seifried
One of the most bitterly contested races in the Nov. 6 election is in Georgia, where the gubernatorial campaign pits Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a white Republican, against Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who is vying to become the state’s first black governor.
The race became especially heated this week when voting rights advocates filed a lawsuit accusing Kemp, the state’s top election official, with blocking more than 50,000 voter registrations—mostly of black residents—to hurt turnout and boost his campaign.
Kemp’s campaign has denied the accusation. The state is among several with laws that require exact matches between personal information on voter registrations and state databases.
Abrams’ campaign has called on Kemp to resign, and spokeswoman Abigail Collazo said Thursday that he was “maliciously wielding the power of his office to suppress the vote for political gain.”
The Georgia dispute is among several in various states that voting rights advocates have zeroed in on because of what they describe as restrictive voting laws, changes to early voting rules and polling place closures. They point to studies that show voter fraud is rare in the U.S.
The conflicts are often drawn along party lines, with Democrats saying voter suppression is at play and Republicans saying changes in voting procedures prevent fraud.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to toss out a law that requires North Dakota voters to show identification with a current residential address. Voting rights groups said the law will hurt the state’s Native American voters, as many of them live on reservations and do not have standard addresses.
On Wednesday, a federal judge in Ohio upheld the state’s system for purging those who haven’t voted in six years from its registration rolls.
Civil rights groups in the state, home to high-profile House, Senate and governor races, said the rule hit hard in districts with Democratic voters.
On Thursday, an Arkansas state court upheld a law that makes voters show photo identification at the polls. The law lets them use provisional ballots if they have no ID. Democrats are vying to gain at least one of the state’s four seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, all held by Republicans.
At issue in several states are changes to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Supreme Court struck down key parts of the act in 2013 that required certain states—largely ones in the South with a history of disenfranchising black voters—to get approval from the federal government before making changes to voting rules.
The debate in Georgia centers on its “exact match” law, passed last year, that requires names and other information on voter registrations to correspond precisely to state databases. A skipped middle name or hyphen or a typo can put voters on a “pending” list.
Civil rights groups, including the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, are suing to overturn the rule, which they consider discriminatory.
They say it disproportionately hurts minorities such as the state’s large black population, which tends to vote for Democrats.
If the Voting Rights Act was fully in place, “Georgia would most certainly be required” to get government clearance for its new ID law, said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
“There exists a stark parallel between the voter suppression schemes levied by states around the country prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the insidious tactics used by Secretary Kemp,” said Clarke, whose Washington-based group is among those suing the state.
Georgia, in particular, has been a hotbed of controversy over voting rules. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution report this summer found that 214 polling place locations had been closed in the state since 2012. The numbers represent about 8 percent of Georgia’s polling places.
Voting administrators say the closures save taxpayer money by consolidating less popular polling sites.
Voting rights advocates say they reduce access to the polls, in particular for rural voters who are minorities.
In a high-profile case this summer, national civil rights groups launched a campaign to save seven polling sites in Randolph County, a rural area of northwest Georgia.
The Randolph County Board of Elections had proposed closing the sites, which served around 1,700 voters, most of them black, to save money and because some did not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Amid protest, the elections board switched course in August after a one-minute meeting.
President Donald Trump, who has claimed without evidence that there were millions of illegal votes in the 2016 presidential election, this year disbanded a commission to investigate voter fraud and has spoken out forcefully in support of voter ID laws.
But changes in voting rules have also drawn criticism from parts of the U.S. government. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which has eight members appointed by Democratic and Republican presidents, released a sweeping report last month documenting what it said was declining voting access across the country over the last five years.
It cited 23 states with “newly restrictive statewide voter laws” in that time period and 61 lawsuits that were filed challenging state voting regulations for violating federal law.
“Citizens in the United States—across many states, not limited only to some parts of the country—continue to suffer significant, and profoundly unequal, limitations on their ability to vote,” commission Chairwoman Catherine E. Lhamon said at the time of the report’s release.
“That stark reality denigrates our democracy and diminishes our ideals,” said Lhamon, an Obama appointee. “This level of ongoing discrimination confirms what was true before 1965, when the Voting Rights Act became law, and has remained true since 1965: Americans need strong and effective federal protections to guarantee that ours is a real democracy.”