It's possible that thousands of Milwaukee residents will go to the polls this fall and find that they're no longer registered to vote.
Two years ago, the state of Wisconsin joined ERIC, the Electronic Registration Information Center, which aims to maintain the accuracy of voter lists and encourage access to voter registration by comparing data.
The State of Wisconsin Elections Commission is tasked with executing this program that pulls voters address data from the state election commission, the Department of Motor Vehicles, Social Security Administration, United States Postal Service, and other states.
When the system finds a person listed at a different addresses, the record is “flagged.” Wisconsin's elections commission then sends a postcard, and if a period of time goes by with no reply, the person’s voter registration is deactivated.
But Milwaukee officials are finding that voters have been “flagged” and their registration made inactive - by mistake.
At a press conference Wednesday, Mayor Tom Barrett said he doesn’t want to wait for residents to learn about the problem at the polls in next month's spring election. "We recognize that the right to vote is very fundamental. If people who have already registered show up on election day and are denied the right to vote, that’s a serious problem."
Neil Albrecht, of the City of Milwaukee Election Commission, said that ERIC can have great value, like increasing voter confidence and helping people register, but it has to be working properly.
“We all want voter registration that is accurate, that’s certainly something that is supported by the City of Milwaukee," he said. "But as much as we don’t want people sitting on the voter rolls that no longer live in the city, I think what’s even more critical is that we can’t deactivate people who should have active voter registration records as a result of a flawed system.”
Milwaukee officials said that they started seeing the flaws when voters came out for the February primary. They noticed that about 100 residents, who hadn't moved, found their registrations deactivated. The state elections commission said so far they have verified 12 people statewide who had to re-register on February 20, even though they had not moved.
Going forward, the City of Milwaukee Election Commission is concerned about the 30,000+ voters in the City of Milwaukee whose postcards were not returned as undeliverable, who have not yet re-registered at a new address and who have had no contact with it or the state.
At this point, the state commission doesn’t know how many of the non-responses to its postcards will result in mistaken deactivations. But the City of Milwaukee is extrapolating from the February primary and estimates that about 3,000 people could be affected. The city is following up with their own postcards.
Albrecht said he’s concerned that the situation will make it harder for people who are already less likely to vote, such as those living in poverty. He said it can be tough to get them registered in the first place.
City officials said that the errors mostly came from DMV or US post office data. Reid Magney of the Wisconsin Elections Commission explained one such error: “It turns out that some [voters] might have registered a new vehicle at a different address with DMV. So, they’re still living where they’re living but their kid is going to college somewhere else like in La Cross or Eau Claire, so they registered the car there. But DMV saw that information and thought that meant the person had moved, when they hadn’t actually moved. So part of it was us not understanding exactly how DMV was updating those records like that."
To address concerns about voters having to reregister unnecessarily, the Wisconsin Elections Commission voted on March 2 to have a supplemental poll list of voters who were deactivated due to the ERIC postcards. That means that for the April elections, if a voter is on the supplemental list and hasn't moved, the voter will get a ballot automatically.
All parties suggest that voters check if their registration is current at the my vote website or by calling (414) 286-CITY.
"We encourage people to [check the website] before every election, not only to make sure you're registered, but you'll also get a chance to see what's on your ballet... and you can double check to make sure where your polling place is," Magney said.