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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The legal maneuvering over a court-ordered purge of up to 209,000 registered voters in Wisconsin took another twist Wednesday, with the state Justice Department asking the Wisconsin Supreme Court to put the original ruling on hold by Friday or direct a lower appeals court to consider doing so.
The increasingly convoluted legal battle that's being carried out in both state and federal courts is being closely watched because of Wisconsin's position as a battleground state in the 2020 presidential election. President Donald Trump won Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016 and both sides are preparing for another close race.
A judge last month sided with the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty law firm in ruling that the bipartisan state Elections Commission broke the law when it did not deactivate any voter flagged as potentially having moved who did not respond within 30 days to an October 2019 mailing.
The commission wanted to wait until after the November presidential election before it removed anyone because of inaccuracies in a previous round of data identifying voters who may have moved.
The fight is now centered over whether the judge's order to purge the voters should be carried out while appeals are pending. A state appeals court on Tuesday said it would not consider the state's request to put the purge on hold until after the Wisconsin Supreme Court decides whether to take the case. A request from the law firm seeking the purge asked the Supreme Court to bypass the appeals court and take the case directly. The Supreme Court, which is controlled by conservatives, has not said whether it will do that.
There is urgency to act because an Ozaukee County judge has scheduled a Monday hearing to determine whether the Wisconsin Elections Commission is in contempt for not immediately purging the voters, the Justice Department said in a motion Wednesday. The department, which represents the Elections Commission, urged the Supreme Court to either put the original ruling calling for the purge on hold or order the appeals court to decide on it.
The Justice Department argues that with pending elections in February and April, the judge's ruling needs to be put on hold to prevent irreparable harm to voters who face deactivation.
Rick Esenberg, president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty that brought the lawsuit, said rather than trying to put the judge's ruling on hold, the elections commission should be working to follow the order and deactivate the voters.
A separate lawsuit pending in federal court, filed by the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, seeks to stop the purge. Both the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, and the Republican-controlled Legislature, are attempting to intervene in the case and have it dismissed.
The Elections Commission in October mailed about 232,500 voters to tell them records indicated they had moved and that they needed to verify the address where they were registered to vote was current. Of those, about 209,000 have not requested continuation at their current address or registered at another.
Democrats are fighting to stop the purge, saying it will unfairly impact their voters because most of those who are targeted to have their registrations deactivated live in Democratic-leaning areas of the state. Republicans say they merely want to ensure that people who have moved can't vote from an old address.
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