Batesville Herald Tribune, Batesville, Indiana

July 24, 2012

Voting rolls need to be reviewed

Maureen Hayden
The Herald-Tribune

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Retired state Supreme Court Justice Ted Boehm didn't have to read the recent Pew Center on the States report on bloated voter registration rolls to know Indiana has a problem.

For 20 years, Boehm and his wife lived in the same house and voted at the same address in elections up to the 2011 primary. During that entire span, the names of the couple who sold their house to the Boehms back in 1991 and then moved to Texas remained on the voter roll as well, listed as active voters at the very same address they'd vacated years ago.

Boehm is a Democrat who cast the sole dissenting vote against Indiana's voter identification law when it was challenged in the state's high court two years ago.

The voter ID law was hailed by its Republican champions as a way to prevent voter fraud. But Boehm believes having error-filled voter rolls is much more problematic.

Past cases of voter fraud in Indiana haven't involved people showing up at the polls impersonating someone else, he said. Instead, they've involved absentee ballots, which don't require an ID, cast for voters who are dead or have moved away.

"I don't think voter fraud is a big problem in Indiana," Boehm said. "But if you're really concerned about it, that's the place to look."

Boehm isn't alone in his concern about the state's voter rolls.

Indiana faces both an inquiry from the U.S. Justice Department and a lawsuit from the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch on the issue.

Each has raised questions about whether state and county election officials are complying with a federal law that requires voter rolls to be cleansed of the names of people who are ineligible to vote because they've died or have moved away.

The Justice Department says at 10 percent of Indiana's  92 counties have a higher number people on their active voter rolls than they do who are old enough to vote. Judicial Watch claims the problem is more widespread.

Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson acknowledged the state and county elections officials find it challenging and costly to keep voter rolls current. The same law that requires accurate voter rolls, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also makes it harder for county election officials to remove voter names.

They need a death certificate or notice from the state health department to take a deceased person's name off the roll, for example. They have to wait for a voter to miss two presidential elections before they can start the process of verifying whether that voter is still at the address where he or she registered.

"It's not an easy process," Lawson said. "And no one wants to disenfranchise a voter by removing them from the (voter registration) roll too quickly."

Lawson declined to comment on the Judicial Watch lawsuit, but she's clearly sensitive to the issue: She was appointed to the job only four months ago, after her predecessor, Charlie White, was convicted on election fraud charges of using his old address to cast his vote, after moving someplace else.

Error-laden voter registration rolls aren't just a problem in Indiana. In February, the non-partisan Pew Center on the States released a report that said the nation's voter registration rolls are in deep disarray. Pew researchers, using information collected from states' voter rolls, found that one in eight active registrations is invalid or inaccurate.

That includes about 1.8 million people listed as active voters who are dead, and another 2.8 million people with active registrations in more than one state.

In releasing the report, Pew officials said they didn't believe bad voter rolls were an indicator of widespread voter fraud. But they did find them worrisome.

David Becker, director of election initiatives at the Pew Center said error-laden voter rolls "waste taxpayer dollars, undermine voter confidence and fuel partisan disputes over the integrity of our elections." 

Andrew Downs, a political scientist and the director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, concurs. "Anything that contributes to the potential for fraud that is unaddressed undermines voter confidence."

There may be no easy fix. Cleaning the voter registration roll is both expensive and fraught with political peril.

The State of Florida is engaged in a bitter battle over efforts to purge its voter rolls of an estimated 180,000 voters whose citizenship status is in question. Critics, including Justice Department lawyers, contend the purge is based on outdated information and disproportionately targets voters with Hispanic surnames. Democrats charge Florida's Republican-led purge is a nefarious attempt to disenfranchise voters who are likely to vote Democratic.

Indiana has been here before. In 2006, the U.S. Justice Department, under Republican President George Bush, pushed the state's Election Commission into signing a consent decree in which the state agreed to work with county officials to clean up Indiana voter registration rolls. The consent decree also required the state to provide annual reports to the Justice Department, explaining how the state was keeping those rolls clean.

But that consent decree expired in 2009.

Depending on what happens with the Justice Department inquiry and the Judicial Watch lawsuit, the Indiana General Assembly may be forced to take up the issue in the next session. Lawson said it will take about $2 million for the state to purge its voter registration rolls of invalid registrations; that's money that will likely have to be appropriated by the legislature.

 

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com