The case of the nonexistent voters


Photo by Daniel R. Burke

Chicago isn’t the only place where dead people vote regularly.

A recent survey of voter registration data conducted by the Fels Institute of Government revealed that more people are registered to vote than are of eligible voting age in two states and 241 counties nationwide.

The survey was conducted as part of the project to develop the Fels Voting Index (FVI), a planned annual ranking of the 50 states based on the accuracy, accountability and accessibility of their voting systems.

The FVI was conceived in the wake of the 2000 presidential election, when problems with the vote in Florida led to a crisis that only ended when the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the recount. Project manager Chris Patusky, deputy director of the Fels Institute, said, “The flaws in the voting system have always been there. There’s just never been any pressure to fix them until the Florida debacle exposed them.”

Most of the flaws stem from the Constitutionally mandated practice of leaving the running of elections up to the states, which in turn hand off responsibility to the counties and cities. The resulting system, where every jurisdiction has its own rules, makes it difficult to ensure that everyone who has the right to vote can do so while protecting the integrity of the voter rolls.

The federal Help America Vote Act, signed into law Oct. 29, is intended to fix some of the worst problems. But its new rules, such as one that allows voters not on the rolls to cast provisional ballots, actually create more opportunity for trouble. “You thought Florida was bad, wait until the states implement this system,” Patusky said.

The FVI project’s goal is to serve as a monitor of best election practices, make it easier for states to implement sound election laws and help citizens and states enforce them. It will do this by collecting data on registration and voting and ranking states on how well they perform on a 55-item checklist of best practices.

“[Our] system tells [the states] what steps they need to take to improve their elections,” he said.

To come up with its list, FVI project members read 20 reports produced after the Florida affair and chose those recommendations that could be easily measured, were not overly burdensome, had bipartisan support and met the project’s goals. The aim, like that of the new Federal law, is to encourage states to come up with uniform statewide voting and registration systems, improve training of poll workers and standardize such matters as ballot design and recount procedures. The project aims to have a ranking of all 50 states ready in time for the national political conventions in 2004.

While the discrepancies in the voting rolls underscore the need for statewide registration databases, Patusky said, not even those will be perfect without oversight.

“Alaska is the only state with a statewide registration system,” he said, “and it had a high level of over-registration.” Montana was the other state with high over-registration.

Originally published on December 5, 2002