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Student registers to vote on Election Day

Election officials help a student to register to vote on the UW-Madison campus in February 2016.


State elections officials are hoping a review of voting lists will avoid a repeat of the Feb. 20 primary, during which some voters showed up at the polls to find their names had been purged from poll books.

“We’ve been researching every single case that’s come to our office and trying to determine exactly what happened,” said Meagan Wolfe, whom the Wisconsin Elections Commission unanimously appointed Friday as interim administrator.

Wolfe, who had been serving as assistant elections administrator, is replacing Michael Haas, who had resigned amid Republican opposition. Commission members also voted to submit Wolfe’s name to the state Senate as permanent elections chief.

The commission, which met Friday, has been working to find out why some voters during the primary had been wiped from poll lists, some of whom were targeted by 343,000 postcards sent out in November because records had flagged them as having moved. Several of those were identified under the Electronic Registration information Center — a multi-state effort to identify voters who may have moved or died — because of state Department of Motor Vehicles records.

Those who didn’t respond to the postcards were presumed to have an errant address and were expunged from the list.

During public comments at Friday’s Elections Commission meeting, state Democratic Party Chair Martha Lanning said her husband was one of those purged. A review of his case showed that he was flagged because he had registered a car under their son’s address.

Noting that the number of voters flagged represents 10 percent of the voting public, Lanning said she was concerned that a larger number of voters might head to the polls later this year to find that DMV records had undermined their ability to vote.

“I like what I’ve already heard, that we’re trying to make remedies, which we appreciate,” she said. “But I hope that you’d do more in really going through those purged voters, comparing them to other things.”

Of the postcards sent out in November, 51,000 went to Dane County addresses.

But Marilyn McDonald, a registered voter since 1976 who was purged from the rolls, wasn't among those targeted by the mailing. Instead, officials found that a temporary worker for the city of Madison has accessed her voting records and accidentally changed her birth date.

“This must not happen,” she said at the commission meeting, “as the consequences are huge. I was not longer on the Madison list of voters because of a one-digit typo.”

Dane County Clerk Scott McDonnell said his office has received “a lot of complaints” about people being dropped from registration rolls.

“I think sometimes it’s easy to say, ‘We’ve found the issue. It was the DMV and how they did vehicle registration,'” he said. “But I’m worried that there could be other problems that are not as obvious that I’d hope you would investigate.”

For example, he said, some postcards to people who had moved were forwarded by the Postal Service, and others were not.

“We all know the Post Office is being challenged right now with staffing and hours,” he said.

According to Wolfe, since the primary, 22 people have been identified as being wrongfully removed from the voter list.

Of those, about a dozen were sent postcards. In those cases, Wolfe said, Department of Motor Vehicles data didn’t match voting system records.

The other 10 were deactivated because they were flagged as inactive voters — registered voters who hadn’t voted in at least four years — or because of other factors like municipal clerk errors.

Some, she said, were part of the November mailing who didn’t return the postcards.

“It was assumed they had moved and would need to reregister to vote,” she said.

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She said the commission is still in the process of identifying people who had been removed from the voter lists who should not have been.

“That’s why we put out a press release and encouraged anybody who felt they were put in this situation to contact us,” she said.

She encouraged voters to check the to check their registration status.

Meagan Wolfe


She said the numbers of people left off the rolls could grow during the higher turnout spring general election and fall primary and general election this year. 

The commission is initiating a new process leading up to the April election to help narrow the list of voters left off the rolls.

Wolfe said the commission plans to distribute the current list of voters flagged by the multi-state system to municipalities, which then can sort out which voters have actually moved and which ones were placed on the inactive list but haven’t moved.

“When they’ve done some of that initial cleanup, we’ll send them a new list of inactive voters,” she said.

Those voters simply have to affirm to poll workers that they haven’t moved in order to vote.

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.