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One IT Guy’s Spreadsheet-fueled Race to Restore Voting Rights

Lots of activists—and one Ohio man—are on a quest to fix purged voter rolls

This past April, in the lead-up to Wisconsin's spring election, there was a ruckus that, from afar, made no sense. There didn't seem to be much for which to vote. Bernie Sanders had already conceded, so the Democratic primary was a dud, and President Donald Trump had no opponents. There was a state supreme court judgeship on the ballot, pitting a liberal, Jill Karofsky, against a conservative, Daniel Kelly, but even a liberal victory would only make a solidly conservative court one vote less so.

And yet the race was all blood and claw. A Republican-backed ad accused Karofsky, a prosecutor, of offering “no jail time for a monster who sexually assaulted a 5-year-old girl,” even though she'd had nothing to do with the sentencing. Karofsky said Kelly displayed “corruption in its purest form.” The other conservative justices on the court took the rare step of condemning Karofsky for being “insulting” and “slanderous,” with no “fitness for this bench.” Then, when the Democratic governor allowed more time for mail-in ballots because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Republican state legislators immediately defied him. They took their fight all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and won.

But there was more here than the usual partisan rancor: A single case from the Wisconsin Supreme Court's previous session had ended in a tie, because Kelly had recused himself. This case turned on a dull bureaucratic process, but one with alarming ramifications. A massive purge of the voter rolls had been planned for 2020, but it was delayed over fears that a lot of legitimate, mostly Democratic, voters would get cut. The tie-breaking vote would decide the timing of the purge—before or after the November presidential election. Karofsky was a likely “after” vote. What happened next made the stakes glaringly obvious. Karofsky won the election, setting the stage for a delayed purge. But then the conservative judge decided to do something so legally bizarre that the very word used to describe his action is not yet in Webster's Dictionary. With three months left in his lame-duck judgeship, Kelly decided to “unrecuse” himself, and suddenly a purge of 129,000 names seemed possible.

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