Wisconsin court temporarily halts removal of more than 200,000 names from voter rolls

(Reuters) - A Wisconsin appeals court intervened on Tuesday to stop as many as 209,000 names from being scrubbed from the state’s voter registration rolls, in a case voting rights advocates say could impact access to the polls in a key 2020 election state.

A panel of three Ozaukee County Circuit Court judges on Monday put on hold a decision that fined three members of the Wisconsin Election Commission $250 a day each until they voted to purge the names.

The appeals court stepped in a day later, after the Wisconsin Supreme Court declined to take up the case. The appeals court ordered the lower court’s order against the commissioners, and a Dec. 13 order to purge the names from voter rolls, “stayed until further order of this court,” the court clerk wrote.

Liberals have raised the alarm over the potential removal of so many names from the voter roll in a state set to be a battleground when Republican President Donald Trump seeks re-election in November.

Researchers have alleged a voter ID law in Wisconsin discouraged some voters in the 2016 election, when Trump unexpectedly carried the state by fewer than 23,000 votes.

The voter purge case dates to a complaint last year from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), a conservative litigation center, that argued the bipartisan Wisconsin Election Commission had broken the law by deciding not to remove from the rolls names that had been flagged by a system that alerts the commission to voters who may have moved residence.

“What is true yesterday is true today,” said Rick Esenberg, WILL’s president and general counsel, of the appeals court’s decision. “The Wisconsin Elections Commission isn’t following state law and we look forward to making that case in the Court of Appeals.”

The Wisconsin Election Commission had said it wanted to avoid repeat of a previous purge when thousands of names had been flagged erroneously.

Wisconsin law would allow anyone wrongly removed from the rolls to re-register on an election day, but the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, which is attempting to enter the case, has argued that the removal was a burden on their right to vote.

Reporting by Simon Lewis in Washington; Editing by Cynthia Osterman