There are two big reasons to retain the records of inactive, or ineligible, voters.
First and foremost is that the law requires it.
The retention of public records is essential to the maintenance of an open and transparent government. Wisconsin Stat. § 16.61 addresses the retention of records for state agencies, and Wis. Stat. § 19.21 deals with record retention for local government entities. More specifically, Chapter 6 of the Wisconsin Statutes establishes that registration records may be “eligible” or “ineligible” while not once referencing their destruction.
Officials with the statutory authority to modify the statewide registration list may change a voter’s registration status from eligible (active) to ineligible (inactive). Eligible records are registered to vote, appear on pollbooks, and can cast a ballot in statewide elections. Ineligible records are not registered to vote, do not appear on pollbooks, and cannot cast a ballot in Wisconsin elections.
The change from eligible to ineligible status is repeatedly referenced in the statutes, including but not limited to:
- Section 6.36(1)(e) regarding changes to the registration list
- Section 6.50(2) regarding failure to participate in an election for four years
- Section 6.50(3) regarding a change in residence
- Section 6.50(4) regarding deceased voters
- Section 6.50(5) regarding condemned structures
- Section 6.50(6) regarding municipal clerk powers
- Section 6.50(7) regarding recording of ineligibility
- Section 6.50(10) regarding the right to reregister
- Section 6.55(2)(cs) regarding loss of voting rights due to a felony conviction
- Section 6.56(3) regarding voter verification post cards
- Section 6.56(4) regarding double voting
Put simply, the law repeatedly states that a voter’s registration status shall be changed from eligible to ineligible. Wisconsin law does not reference the destruction of voter records.
The second, but no less important reason to retain ineligible voter records is to safeguard against fraud.
The retention of voter history does not make it any easier to commit election fraud. It is no more difficult or easy to change a voter record than it is to create one from scratch. Instead, the retention of historical data helps to safeguard against abuse of the system.
If ineligible records were destroyed, the State of Wisconsin would have no voting history. There would be no registration history, no participation history, and most importantly, no history of why a record became ineligible. The voter registration database is the means for election officials to track deaths; to track felons; to track people adjudicated incompetent; and to otherwise track any reason for ineligibility. If ineligible records are destroyed, election officials would lose their only mechanism to verify these conditions.
Voters who wish to become registered again must re-register and create a new record. They cannot simply “reactivate” their record and no mechanism exists for voters to do so. In general, once a record is deactivated, it stays that way. Only in narrow and well-documented circumstances may an inactive record be re-activated.
Finally, it is possible for anyone to independently verify the status of ineligible records and to note any changes to active status. All voter registration data – active and inactive – is available to the public and hundreds of copies have been produced over the years. These records allow anyone to view ineligible records and affirm that an inactive record five years ago remains an inactive record today. If a record has changed its status the retention of historical data allows anyone to learn who changed the status, when it was changed, and typically why it was changed.
If inactive records are instead destroyed, Wisconsin’s election history is lost.