Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Raising the Dead Voter Hoax
By Justin Levitt
Once again, its late October, the time of year when wholesome communities across America enjoy some good-natured fictional fearmongering. Ghostly apparitions are everywhere, and everyones chuckling. Of course, this is also election seasonand for the press, the connection is often irresistible. The dearly departed – are alive and voting. Boo!
Dead-voter pieces appear as reliably as slasher-movie sequels, and are about as straightforward to write. Registration rolls are mined for entries of the recently and not-so-recently deceased. A list of ostensible voters and a list of ostensible corpses are run through a computer program that spits out potential matches. Many thousands of entries are flagged. And voila: The horde of allegedly undead voters makes the front page.
These undead voters, however, dont do well in daylight. Problems with matching from list to list often account for much of the alleged fraud. For example, statistics tell us that two individuals share the same name, even the same birthdate, with surprising frequency, so that two peopleone dead, one very much alivemay be confused for each other.
There are additional problems with the underlying lists themselves. The Social Security Administrations Death Master Filethe most common source for seeking fraudis notoriously inaccurate when used in this manner, listing as deceased hundreds of thousands of citizens who are in the best of health. And pollworkers make mistakes, checking a box one entry down or one entry up from the correct line, so that the wrong individual appears to have voted.
These problems can usually be overcome, but only with substantial effort. Sophisticated computer algorithms may be able to match list to list more reliably, but are usually proprietary and often expensive. Phone calls to speak with the families of flagged voters are both awkward and time-consuming. And even if the actual poll records have not been discarded, going to the original source to check for recordkeeping errors is a bureaucratic pain in the neck.
As a result, reliable reporting on dead-voter stories is frighteningly rare.
A story this past Sunday from upstate New York provides an intriguing example of the bestand worstof the coverage. The usual lists were matched. The usual caveats were proffered. But then the intrepid reporter went beyond the superficial. He acknowledgedtwice!that most instances of dead voters can be attributed to database mismatches and clerical errors. He presented an actual citizen who was listed as dead but was in fact breathing soundly. He found an absentee ballot that had incorrectly been attributed to a deceased family member of the actual voter.
And yet, the unwarranted headline: Dead voters continue to cast ballots in New York.
When the deceased show up in unfounded reports of election fraud, its not just good holiday entertainment. Indeed, a recent status report on an investigation of voter fraud under the auspices of the bipartisan federal Election Assistance Commission noted the large number of unsupported fraud claims in recent stories, and cited allegations that the unfounded charges were an effort to scare people away from the voting process.
For the moment, the Commission hasahemburied the full results of the investigation itself, which should catalog both the allegations and the inaccuracies, if not the motivation behind the stories. But whether or not the false charges are actually intended to frighten, the repeated cries of wolf lead Americans to lose trust in a part of the election process that actually works fairly well, and distracts them from fixing the parts of the process that need substantial overhaul.
This, in turn, leads to policies that truly deserve scary headlines.
For example, consider the recent voter-ID legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and justified in substantial part by dead-voter stories. Never mind that federal law already puts the burden on states to clean deceased registrants from new statewide voter registration lists, carefully and with safeguards for legitimate voters. This new bill would instead confront the illusory dead-voter problem by placing a new burden on the electorate: all citizens would be required to show government-issued documentary identification with a photo and proof of citizenship before voting.
It is appropriate that the bill was first sponsored by Representative Hydea name with substantial Halloween resonancebecause it would have some truly ghoulish effects. At the moment, only a passport or a drivers license from one of three states would satisfy Hydes standards. Any voter without the magic documentseven those citizens legitimately voting for years or decadeswould suddenly find the doors of the polling place mysteriously shut.
The usual claim is that laws like these are justified, despite their profoundly disenfranchising effect, to ward off the forces of fraud. Dead voters, in particular, provide powerful anecdotal evidence that these sorts of rules are necessary. Which is why it is so dangerous to repeat dead-voter anecdotes that later prove untrue. Even ifespecially ifits only in a headline.
We would all be better served by a little more restraint. Yes, as states continue to clean new registration rolls, there will still be a dwindling number of deceased registrants who remain on the list. But on Election Day, they generally rest in peace.
This Halloween, there are more than enough scary stories of verified wrongs to fill the newspaper pages. Lets leave the undead voter hordes to the fiction section, where they belong.
Justin Levitt is an Associate Counsel in the Democracy Program of the Brennan Center for Justice.