Up to 234,000 Wisconsin residents are at risk of being removed from the voter rolls, a political lightning-rod that has drawn national attention given the state’s critical role in the 2020 presidential election.
Wisconsin election officials believe those people may have moved, so they sent letters inquiring about their status in October. A series of ensuing lawsuits and court actions have sought to more quickly remove these people from the voting rolls -- or delay that from happening.
The controversy caught the attention of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat.
A Twitter account described as Pelosi’s "political account" retweeted a statement from Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler and then offered its own take on the situation.
"It’s beyond alarming that more than 200,000 registered Wisconsin voters will be prohibited from voting," the tweet said.
The tweet does not appear to have been sent by Pelosi herself, since it was not signed with her initials, a style referenced in the account description.
There’s clearly room for disagreement over how to handle the 234,000 voters.
But Pelosi’s claim is a significant exaggeration of what’s at stake.
The controversy began in October 2019 when the Wisconsin Elections Commission sent letters to 234,000 voters it believed may have moved because of information it received from the post office, Division of Motor Vehicles or other government entities. That’s 7% of the 3.3 million registered voters in the state.
The letters asked recipients to re-register at their new address if they had moved or to confirm they were still at their same address if they hadn't.
All of this is a big deal in Wisconsin, a state President Donald Trump won by less than 23,000 votes in 2016, a key factor in his victory.
Officials have refused to release the names of those who received the letters, but a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis of the mailings showed 55% went to municipalities won by Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. A higher percentage of voters received the mailings in traditional Democratic strongholds, such as Milwaukee, Madison and many college towns.
State officials want to put off forcing people off the rolls until 2021, not wanting to affect the 2020 election since they aren’t certain all of those people actually moved.
Indeed, as of Dec. 5, 2019, the Elections Commission said 2,300 recipients had responded to the letter to report they still lived at the same address. By that point, 16,500 recipients had also registered to vote at new addresses, and 60,000 letters had been returned as undeliverable.
But a lawsuit brought in November by three voters with the help of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty argued election officials were required to remove voters from the rolls 30 days after sending the letters if they hadn't heard from them.
On Dec. 13, 2019, an Ozaukee County judge ruled those people should be removed immediately.
Four days later, Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul filed notice the state would appeal and seek to stay the judge’s ruling. The same day, the left-leaning League of Women Voters of Wisconsin filed suit in federal court to try to stop voter names from being purged.
So what happens to the 234,000 voters?
The claim by Pelosi, via her Twitter account, is that they will be "prohibited" from voting.
But anyone in this group has multiple opportunities to regain their status as registered voters. Voters who are removed from the rolls — correctly or not — can re-register online, at their clerk's office or even at the polls on Election Day.
Wisconsin is one of 21 states that allows voters to register at their polling place the day of the election, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Addressing this at the polls would mean filling out paperwork and providing proof of residence such as a driver's license, property tax bill, utility bill, bank statement, paycheck stub, lease or workplace ID. That means some people — we have no idea how many — could be unable to vote if they can’t provide proof of residence at the polls and don’t re-register beforehand.
The Pelosi tweet was made in the context of the 2020 election, but the next chance for Wisconsin residents to vote is the spring primary on Feb. 18, 2020. So it does leave a narrow window to get reregistered before the election.
That said, the 234,000 people who received the letter are not prohibited from voting.
The Elections Commission stated this explicitly in the Oct. 10, 2019, announcement that the letters were being sent.
"This mailing is designed to help people who may have moved within Wisconsin make sure they’re ready to vote next year," said Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin’s chief elections official. "It will not keep anyone eligible from voting."
When asked for evidence supporting the tweet, a Pelosi spokesman acknowledged the ability to re-register but largely reiterated the same overstated claim.
"Of course, if people re-register, they will be able to vote," said Jorge Aguilar. "If the purge goes through, people will be de-registered and not be allowed to vote."
Weighing in on the Wisconsin voter rolls controversy, Pelosi says these 200,000-plus people "will be prohibited from voting."
That’s a major overstatement of how this actually works.
Yes, the pruning process — if allowed by the courts — could potentially remove more than 200,000 people from the voting rolls before the upcoming elections. But there is no punitive element that would ban future voting. Everyone can re-register, even on Election Day.
The use of the word "prohibited," in particular, goes too far, in that it suggests there is no way to vote in the future.
We rate Pelosi’s claim Pants on Fire.