Friday, January 3, 2020

Oshkosh voters, many of them students, face 1 in 10 chance of legal challenge to registration status

The Wisconsin Election Commission has sent mailings to almost 3,500 Oshkosh voters.

By Miles Maguire

The Wisconsin Election Commission has sent mailings to almost 3,500 Oshkosh voters questioning their eligibility to vote based on official address records, and it has taken another 229 citizens off the rolls because they have registered to vote in another state.

The questioned voters represent 10% of the city’s total registrations as of last April’s election, according to the city’s website.

That percentage figure is inflated by the fact that many of those voters are university students, said Pamela Ubrig, Oshkosh city clerk. Under current law students are required to reregister every time they move--even if it is just across the hall in the same dormitory.

Because Oshkosh is home to a major state university with many students who rarely stay in the same place for their entire undergraduate careers, it is also home to many registered voters whose polling addresses regularly go out of date.

The letters from the WEC, which went out in August, were based on information it received from a multistate organization that flags disrepancies in address records given to various government agencies. The letters included instructions for voters to rectify the situation, either by confirming their current addresses or by reregistering at a new address.

According to the WEC, the discrepancies may arise for a variety of reasons. Many of them are likely the result of a voter moving to a new address, but some occur when, for example, a car owner registers a vehicle in a different jurisdiction to avoid a local wheel tax.

Across the state, the letters went to 232,579 voters whose address records had been called into question. For almost 75 percent of the mailings,169,491 to be precise, election officials received no response.

The post office returned 60,676 as undeliverable, and 2,412 voters requested continuation at their commission-listed address. These numbers are based on data released Dec. 20 by the WEC.

Last year the mailings became the subject of a lawsuit by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a conservative nonprofit organization that frequently aligns itself with Republican policy initiatives.

WILL has won a court ruling that the state must remove voters from the election rolls based on the results of the August mailing. But the state has appealed, arguing that the provision of law at issue applies to local clerks and not the election commission.

The WEC has six commissioners, three Republicans and three Democrats. Because of this split, it has not passed a motion on how to proceed on what is known as the “movers mailing list.”

The case is expected to end up before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. In the meantime, the city clerk is collecting information from the mailing but not removing anyone from the rolls.

“Because the election commission has not decided what to do with those voters, what we’re doing is just documenting the action of it,” Ubrig said. “We’re going to wait to hear from the election commission what action we need to follow.”

City-level figures are not available, but for all of Winnebago County, the WEC said 6,956 letters went out, 36 came back with requests for continuation on the voting rolls and 846 were deemed undelivarable. There was no response for the other 6,095 mailings.

Republicans have been accused of engaging in voter suppression by pushing for the elimination of voters from the official rolls. But party officials say they are not trying to discourage anyone from voting.

 “We should encourage more people to vote, and they should actually live in the municipality they’re voting in,” said Joann Borlee, campaign chairman for the Winnebago County Republic Party. “I don’t know why there are so many names on the rolls of people who can’t vote here. But those names should be removed.”

The League of Women Voters, which has filed a federal lawsuit to block the removal of voters based on the movers mailing list, argues that the process the commission used has significant flaws.

Margy Davey, president of the league’s Winnebago County chapter, said a big problem is the use of the postal service to contact voters at a time when many people rely on electronic communications and pay little attention to the mail.

Young people in particular “might look in [their mailbox] once a week and then throw half of the stuff away,” she said. “Simply sending a letter to a person’s last known address may not be the best and only way to verify that is still their abode.”

She pointed to the widespread use of social media and other alternatives for sending messages. “There are so many ways to communicate there is no way to know what is the best way to communicate with any single individual.”

The league is about to embark on a public education campaign through the county’s library systems to encourage voters to verify their registration status.

Similarly Ubrig said that voters who are not sure about whether they are registered to vote should feel free to contact her office. “Voters can go out on the state website to see if they are registered,” she said. “Or they can call our office. We are more than happy to quick punch their name into the system to see where they’re at.”

The state website for checking voter registration is

The city clerk’s telephone number is (920) 236-5011.

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