Monday, May 05, 2008

Census: `Motor voter law' inflates numbers
By Debra Erdley

The dead and the displaced may not vote, but experts say the 2000 Census supports fears that their names have drastically inflated Pennsylvania's voter registration rolls.

In some populous counties, the voter registration may soon exceed the voting-age population.

"It borders on a statewide disgrace," G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, said of registration rolls that show 90 percent or more of the Census 2000 voting-age population is registered to vote in Pennsylvania's most populous counties.

Michael Young, a political science professor at Penn State University's Harrisburg campus, echoed Madonna.

"Philadelphia (where 90 percent of the voting-age population is registered) is probably the most extreme example. You can't purge people anymore. ... It's created a huge mess for voting records. They're virtually useless," said Young.

With an estimated 93 percent of the voting-age population holding citizenship, numbers like those in Allegheny County (91 percent), Philadelphia and Chester counties (92 percent), would mean that every eligible citizen is registered to vote, Young said.

Madonna and Young both insisted the registration numbers reflect not an engaged electorate, but rather an unintended consequence of Pennsylvania's 1995 motor voter law.

In an effort to encourage voting, the law allowed people to register to vote when they applied for public assistance, a driver's license or unemployment benefits. The law made it very difficult for officials to remove inactive names, short of costly mass mailing efforts.

The law also swelled voter registration from 5.7 million in 1990 to 7.8 million in 2000.

In Fayette County, a 1997 scandal over absentee ballots raised questions about registration numbers. A grand jury investigation that followed concluded with a report speculating that at least 10 percent of the registered voters were either dead or resided elsewhere.

However, when Fayette officials conducted an investigation last year at the grand jury's recommendation, they found only 190 names that could be purged from the rolls - 10 who had died and 180 who had moved out of state. Another 1,300 names were placed in an inactive file after letters came back with notations that forwarding addresses had expired.

Laurie Nicholson, director of Fayette County's Election Bureau, said those names can be purged if the individuals fail to vote in two consecutive federal elections.

She said statistics that show 72 percent of Fayette's voting-age population as registered voters are as accurate a representation as possible under the motor voter law.

Registration figures are 11 percent higher in nearby Westmoreland County where 83 percent of the voting-age population is registered. Traveling north to Indiana County, however, the registration number dips to 67 percent of the voting-age population.

Debra Phillips, executive director of the Voting Integrity Project, an Arlington, Va., organization that vetted Fayette County's registration rolls, worries that there is more at stake here than accuracy.

"It's a very big issue for us. Conservatively, we believe anywhere from 5 to 25 percent of the registration in any county is what you call deadwood or outright fraudulent registration."

"California has found 25 percent (ineligible registrations) three years ago and it's not improved at all. ... In Georgia, the Atlanta Journal Constitution found 15,000 dead people on Georgia's rolls. ... In Indiana, they found one in five registrations was bogus," she said, reeling off numbers she memorized as reports came out.

Estimates of how much the motor voter law has falsely inflated registration vary almost as much as registration varies from county to county.

A comparison of census numbers and registration figures from November 2000 showed registration ranged from 56 percent in tiny Union County to 92 percent in Chester County.

Madonna said there's little to suggest that Pennsylvania politicos have taken advantage of the situation here.

"I've not seen a lot of evidence that voter fraud and corruption are up. ... The turkey's on the table, but they don't seem to have gobbled it up. But because the feast is on the table, it is a very enticing turkey," he said.

Doug Hill, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of County Commissioners, said his members have been raising questions about the system for several years.

Their biggest complaints are that there is no simple, inexpensive way to remove the names of those who have died or moved, and that there are delays in getting new registrations from state offices such as PennDOT to the county election bureaus.

In Allegheny County, where registration stood at 91 percent of the voting-age population last year, officials are struggling for a cost-effective way to pare names from the registration rolls.

Hill said officials knew registration numbers would be high. He added that it came as no surprise that they are highest in the state's largest counties, where resident mobility also is high.

"We're not surprised. We know (the numbers) are inflated. We know there are duplicate registrations.

"If you can't take a name off the rolls by something other than an affirmative mailing, sooner or later your list is going to exceed the population," said Hill.

That's why Hill and his members were relieved when disputes over the Florida presidential vote raised the issue of revamping election codes in the state Legislature.

"We have the same issue Florida has: we don't have standards for close counts and questionable ballots. Now, we're moving on that front.

"It also gave us an entry point to deal with the big issue in Pennsylvania, which is the registration lists," said Hill.

"There's not a county in Pennsylvania where some candidate hasn't received a call complaining that `my husband died six years ago. Would you please take him off your mailing lists?'"

Hill hopes a statewide election code overhaul and the establishment of a centralized statewide registry - both under consideration in Harrisburg - will eliminate much of the problem.

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