Bill removes ineligible voters from state database; clerks say it makes election security harder
State lawmakers want the Wisconsin Elections Commission to delete ineligible voters from the commission’s statewide master database and put them in a separate list that WEC would maintain as well.
A bill to make the change got its first hearing Thursday before a Senate committee, where the chief advocates were the legislation’s authors, who said the legislation would help guard against illegal voting.
Two elections officials and the committee’s Democrats questioned the measure’s value, however, arguing that it was unnecessary, would create confusion and would leave WEC further overworked.
The bill, AB-21/SB-26, focuses on WisVote, WEC’s electronic voting database, which includes the names of everyone in Wisconsin registered to vote. As it’s currently set up, the registration information for individuals in the database who are not eligible to vote is changed from “eligible” to “ineligible.”
The proposed change calls for removing ineligible people from the database and maintaining a separate, permanent record of everyone removed and when and why they were removed.
“The WisVote database currently has both eligible and ineligible voters in the same database,” said the bill’s co-author, Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere), testifying Thursday before the Senate Committee on Government Operations, Elections & Consumer Protection. “This legislation would change that by requiring WEC to remove ineligible voters from the list and requiring permanent documentation of those actions.”
“Passing this legislation will help prevent fraud, restore faith and inject trust in our elections,” said the Assembly co-author, Rep. Ty Bodden (R-Hilbert).
In a fiscal note and analysis of the bill submitted in February, WEC staff said that the commission’s electronic database was much more than simply a list of registered voters. “There is not a physical ‘registration list,’” the fiscal note states.
The database includes voter registration data and voter records. It also includes absentee ballot records, “millions of address records,” records of people judged in court to be incompetent (who are ineligible to vote), records of people convicted of felonies (who are ineligible to vote until all the terms of their sentence are completed, including probation or parole), and many more records besides.
“Ineligible voters do not appear on poll books — the lists of registered voters produced for each election and held at every municipality in the state of Wisconsin,” the note states. “There is no list of registered voters that contains inactive voter records.”
The bill has no details about where or how the records of voters removed as ineligible would be maintained. “WEC would have to basically figure out how to create a system for permanently storing that information under the bill,” said Sen. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit), after questioning the committee’s Legislative Council advisor, who concurred.
Spreitzer asked Jacque why the bill doesn’t specify funding for the work of creating or maintaining the separate list. Jacque said that would have to await the budget, but that in his view it wasn’t unreasonable to ask WEC “to be able to work within their appropriations.”
Bodden said that local and county clerks in his Assembly district have told him that “they are in support of this decluttering of the system.”
But Spreitzer said he’s received the opposite message. “I’ve certainly heard from clerks who are opposed to this bill,” he said, particularly with concerns about election security. As the system is currently set up, “clerks have one place where they can go to find all of that information” — including if a person trying to register is ineligible.
By putting the people who have been identified as ineligible in a separate list, “you want to make it so that there are two places that they have to check to get that information,” Spreitzer said.
Jacque said the idea behind a separate list was that “we don’t want to allow for somebody to simply, with the click of a button, switch somebody from inactive back to active voter status, active registration status.”
Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) questioned that scenario. “Have you talked to WEC? Do you know that that’s how it happens?” She added later: “Or is this just more nebulous … conspiracy theories.”
A single database can be easily segmented by criteria, so that eligible or ineligible voters can be identified, Roys said. “Forcing people to basically maintain double the databases and check things twice is going to create much more confusion for clerks, for voters, for municipal employees, for WEC,” she said. “And it’s not going to get you any different results.”
John Dolson, Sheboygan County clerk, said the current database also makes it possible “for absolutely anyone to independently verify eligible and ineligible records” of people when it comes to voting.
Rachel Rodriguez, elections management specialist in the Dane County Clerk’s office, said the change proposed by the bill wouldn’t accomplish its stated goal.
“Removing ineligible voter records from WisVote would make Wisconsin elections less secure,” Rodriguez said. Keeping eligible and ineligible voters in the same database gives election clerks “a complete history of a voter in one place,” she said.
The records also “allow clerks to track deaths, felons and people who have been adjudicated incompetent because of a court order,” Rodriguez added. “If ineligible voters are removed from WisVote, clerks may lose the ability to see why a voter was made ineligible.”