Dueling editorials in the February 24th edition of the Baltimore Sun  revisit the ongoing arguments over the new voter ID laws popping up around the country.

The Sun  urged caution in adopting measures aimed at stopping “the phantom menace of voter fraud” when they threaten to disenfranchise “tens of thousands of legitimate Maryland voters as the cost for uncovering a minuscule number of fraudulent ballots.”

In his op-ed, former Maryland Governor and U.S. Congressman Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. cited a recent Pew Center on the States report that found “24 million invalid voter registrations and nearly 2 million dead people still on U.S. voter rolls.” That, and the fact that he must produce an ID to get his Claritin D prescription filled, led Ehrlich to wonder why there is not more focus “on fixes to broken election systems around the country.”

Ehrlich joins the ranks of the voter fraud Frighteners (Republicans, typically) convinced that dead voters on inaccurate registration databases and vivid anecdotes of the dead voting are a clear and present — hypothetical — danger to election integrity. Like other Frighteners, Ehrlich of course argues for photo ID laws, while not explaining how voters having their pictures made wipes the dead from state databases, nor why digital signature matching (used to verify absentee ballots) is insufficient for voters who appear at the polls in person.

In a critical response to the Sun ’s editorial board, a letter writer asked why our society treats the “most sacred” of our freedoms “with such little concern.”

Indeed. The Pew study cited by Ehrlich also found that 51 million U.S. citizens – nearly 1 in 4 of the eligible population – are unregistered. Evidently, there is little legislative appetite for helping 1 in 4 Americans to exercise their most sacred of freedoms. Moreover, Pew found that (emphasis mine):

In the 2008 general election, 2.2 million votes were lost because of registration problems, according to a survey by researchers at the California Institute of Technology/Massachusetts Institute of Technology Voting Technology Project. Additionally, 5.7 million people faced a registration related problem that needed to be resolved before voting, according to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study.

Evidently, there is little legislative concern for protecting registered voters’ sacred freedoms, either – only for pursuing the phantom menace of voter fraud. As the Sun  observed,

… the Justice Department under President George W. Bush, conducted a massive investigation between 2002 and 2006. Only 120 people were charged and 86 convicted during a period when nearly 200 million votes were cast in federal elections. According to a New York Times  review of the Justice Department’s efforts, just 26 of those cases involved voting by people who were ineligible, multiple voting or registration fraud — the kinds of offenses that an ID law might catch.

A 2005 report by the Brennan Center found the most common causes of voting irregularities were not people impersonating others at the polls but clerical mistakes, computer errors and instances where two people with the same or similar names were flagged as the same person voting twice. The Brennan study warned that voter ID laws are far more likely to prevent legitimate voters from casting ballots than to prevent fraud.

Where is the Frighteners’ concern that their “remedy” might actually interfere more with the sacred freedoms of legitimate voters than it catches actual fraud?

The Brennan finding is consistent with the recent investigation by South Carolina’s State Election Commission into allegations that 900 dead people had voted in the 2010 general election. (Citing manpower costs, the Commission pulled the plug after reviewing 207 of the contested votes.) The Commission found that 95 percent were either alive and eligible or did not actually vote. There was insufficient data to say on the remaining 5 percent, but no evidence of voter fraud:

Of its review of the 207 contested votes cast in 2010, the commission found:

• 106 votes were clerical errors by poll workers – mistakes like marking John Doe Sr. instead of John Doe Jr.

• 56 votes were “bad data matching” – meaning the state Department of Motor Vehicles, which raised concerns about zombie voters, was wrong in assuming the voters were dead.

• 32 votes were “voter participation errors,” meaning someone was credited as voting in an election when they did not, most likely because of a stray mark on the voter rolls that was electronically scanned to record a voter’s participation.

• Three ballots were cast absentee by voters who died before Election Day.

Ehrlich suggested that there needs to be more focus on our broken elections systems, and that is in fact the subject of the Pew report he cited. Pew’s study, titled “Inaccurate, Costly, and Inefficient,” like its 2010 study, “Upgrading Democracy,” focuses on upgrades to a voter registration system with paper-based, 19th-century origins that “has not kept pace with advancing technology and a mobile society.” Canada, for example, spends 12 times less than the U.S. in maintaining a nationalized database: less than 35 cents per voter, and 93 percent of its eligible population is registered. Along with guarding against registration fraud and inaccuracies, technological upgrades would benefit candidates and campaigns, Pew argues, the kind of thing one would think politicians and parties would welcome:

Accurate lists also will allow political campaigns and nonpartisan efforts to avoid wasting time and money reaching out to registrants who have moved, died, are ineligible, or otherwise are no longer voting in a jurisdiction.

Voter lists are inaccurate because of bad data entry, because people register at their new addresses and don’t de-register at their old ones. Neither do relatives typically take death certificates down to the Board of Elections to have their deceased family members removed. Massive home foreclosures in recent years have made matters worse. The flood of election year paper voter registrations delivered by independent groups is a logistical headache. In fact, dead people remain on the voter rolls because states must comply with federal and state law in purging inactive voters from their lists. In North Carolina (where I live) the general guidelines are explained here. Unless the dead person requests to be removed (unlikely), he or she will remain on the list for eight years (four federal election cycles) before being purged. And voter ID laws fix that how?

Keeping a database up to date costs money and manhours. Yet how many Frighteners are so concerned about the dead voting that they are prepared to pay more in taxes – to pay whatever it takes – to keep their sacred registration lists pristine?

I didn’t think so.

Fortunately, Pew’s working group of over three dozen experts from over 20 states believes that a modern registration system could keep lists more accurate and lower costs by pursuing technology upgrades in three areas:

1. Comparing registration lists with other data sources to broaden the base of information used to update and verify voter rolls.

2. Using proven data-matching techniques and security protocols to ensure accuracy and security.

3. Establishing new ways voters can submit information online and minimize manual data entry, resulting in lower costs and fewer errors.

So, did that Pew report recommend photo ID as a plausible fix for the dead voter problem? Uh, no.

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Tom Sullivan

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