Phantom voters haunt local election boards

11/23/2008
BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER
Lucas County s Linda Howe says removing inactive voters from the rolls would save the elections board money.
Lucas County s Linda Howe says removing inactive voters from the rolls would save the elections board money.

Going into the Nov. 4 election, Lucas County had 61,209 inactive voters - people who don't vote year after year but are kept on the board of elections' registration rolls.

Wood County had more than 30,000.

Other counties have reported similar numbers of phantom voters.

Officials say complicated federal election laws governing voter purges require them to keep former voters on the rolls long after they've quit voting or left the county.

Excess voter lists are costly, create doubts about the voters' existence, and artificially inflate the voter registration rolls in the county - thus artificially lowering turnout percentages, as well, officials say.

Linda Howe, the director of the Lucas County Board of Elections, said eliminating truly inactive voters would save money on mailing and on the number of paper ballots that must be printed, and it would reduce the handling of the records of voters who are known anecdotally to have moved away.

"I think most boards of election want to do it because we're sick and tired of putting all these names on the list," Ms. Howe said.

The 61,209 voters are among 317,036 voters whose names appear on Lucas County's pre-election registration list.

They are considered inactive in most cases because they haven't voted in at least two federal elections (November of even-numbered years).

Even though they're labeled as inactive, they still have the same rights as regular voters, including voting and signing petitions.

Ms. Howe said some of those 61,209 voters may have voted on Nov. 4, restoring them to the ranks of active voters.

The official number of registered voters in Lucas County increased dramatically between 2004 and 2008 - from 300,137 to 317,036 - even as the county's population declined.

Much of that is attributed to the aggressive voter registration effort by supporters of Democratic President-elect Barack Obama in the recent campaign.

But the 6 percent increase in registration didn't result in a comparable increase in voting in a year in which elections experts predicted historic turnout. The mismatch between registration numbers and actual voting has raised questions about whether the counties are keeping inactive voters on the list too long.

Daniel Tokaji, an election law professor at the Ohio State University, said boards of election are not required to wait any longer than two federal elections to remove inactive voters.

"That's their own choice. The federal law is pretty clear about this. I suppose the law certainly doesn't prohibit them from waiting a long time if they choose. There's nothing in federal law that requires them to wait 12 years," Mr. Tokaji said.

The basic process is spelled out in the 1993 National Voting Rights Act: If a voter has failed to respond to a routine notice confirming the voter's address and then fails to vote in two consecutive general federal elections, those in November of even-numbered years, the name can be removed.

"If someone's been sent a confirmation notice under the NVRA the board has to wait until two federal elections have passed with no activity before they can purge that name," Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner said. She added that a voter cannot be purged within 90 days before an election.

But, according to Marty Limmer, information services manager for the Lucas County Board of Elections, additional directives from the Ohio Secretary of State's Office have effectively lengthened the purge cycle to eight years.

Terry Burton, the director of the Wood County Board of Elections, said the cycle for removing an inactive voter can take up to 12 years.

He estimated Wood County has 32,576 inactive voters on its lists.

"We carry a lot more noneligible voters than we used to," Mr. Burton said. "It's unfortunate because it also costs a lot of money. Every time we have do a required mailing we end up mailing to thousands of people that don't really exist in our system. It also frustrates people that have these people at their address who haven't lived there for years and we send them mail for them, and it does make people question."

Ms. Brunner said that only in a worst-case situation would someone remain on the rolls for 11 years and have no activity.

"You can't take someone off the rolls until you've gone through all the precautions the federal law requires," she said.

Both Mr. Burton and Ms. Howe said that maintaining too many inactive voters makes the system more vulnerable to election fraud - although neither described it as a serious threat.

"It's certainly a case where somebody that had the resources and the interest to commit a felony could certainly do so in that case," Mr. Burton said.

Ms. Howe said, "I suppose there's always that potential. It depends on how much time somebody wants to spend to break the law, I guess."

Mr. Tokaji said a solution to fears of accidentally eliminating a legitimate voter's right to cast a ballot is to implement Election Day registration. He said the threat of voter fraud is exaggerated.

"People make that allegation all the time, but it's just not documented that having deadwood on the list bears a causal relation to voter fraud," Mr. Tokaji said.

Contact Tom Troy at:

tomtroy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6058.