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Philly’s bloated voter rolls defy logic, open door to fraud

By   /   October 17, 2012  /   No Comments

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

HARRISBURG – Voter rolls in Philadelphia simply defy logic.

When it comes to inactive voters on the rolls, Pennsylvania does better than many other states – but still has room to improve, observers say.

About two of every three residents of Pennsylvania’s largest city are registered to vote – more than 1 million of the city’s 1.5 million residents – and that doesn’t sit well with Zack Stalberg of the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that works for fair and open elections.

Stalberg said the city has not done enough to trim its voter rolls to remove inactive voters, dead voters and former voters who have moved out of the city. Bloated voting rolls increase the chance for fraud to take place, he said, and in a one-party town like the City of Brotherly Love that can be a particular concern.

“The numbers have been out of whack for some time now,” Stalberg told PA Independent. “It just defies logic to think that two out of every three people living in the city can be registered to vote.”

Stalberg’s view from the ground squares with a recent analysis by Watchdog Labs, a sister organization to PA Independent’s national mothership, Watchdog.org.

That analysis found that 95 percent of Philadelphia’s voting-age population was registered to vote for the 2008 election. And though registration totals declined following that election, they remained over 80 percent in March 2012, the most recent data available for the Watchdog Labs analysis.

Believe it or not, even Philadelphia’s bloated voting rolls are better than what is found in many parts of the country.

The Watchdog Labs analysis looked at voter registration and population data for more than a dozen states – focusing on “swing states” in the coming national election – and found that residents of Colorado, Ohio and Missouri should be particularly concerned.

If Philadelphia’s 95 percent ratio of registered voters to voting age residents defies logic, then the counties in those states that have a ratio of more than 100 percent should be sure signs of fraud at some level.

But no counties in Pennsylvania surpass that threshold.

“Overall, the state is doing a good job, it seems,” said Earl Glynn, the Watchdog Labs researcher who gathered and sorted the voter registration data.

Even though there is a surge in most presidential election years, that really just shows that the organizers are out collecting signatures and registering people to vote, he said. The more important thing is to see a tell-tale drop-off in registrations in the years that follow those elections, a sign that county election officials are doing their duty and dropping inactive voters from the rolls.

“There should be a process they follow after every election cycle,” Glynn said. “Most counties in Pennsylvania seem to be doing maintenance on an ongoing basis.”

Voters can become inactive for a variety of reasons. They might have simply decided not to vote in several consecutive elections, or they may have moved away from their districts and registered somewhere else.

Two out of every three residents of Philadelphia are registered to vote. Some say that’s too many to be accurate

In some cases, they could even be dead.

Research conducted by the Pew Center on the States reveals that approximately 24 million voter registrations, or 1 in 8, are no longer valid. They also estimate that more than 1.8 million dead people are still listed as voters and more than 2.75 million people are registered to vote in multiple states.

Federal law directs election officials to remove inactive voters from the rolls after they have missed two consecutive presidential elections.

In Pennsylvania, voters who are miss five consecutive elections will be sent a letter by their county elections board. If they miss the next two federal elections – meaning the elections that take place in even-numbered years – they should be removed from the rolls, said Ron Ruman, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State.

That works out to being inactive for at least eight years before a name can be removed.

Stalberg said he would like to see officials move more quickly to update the lists. Even though it is a labor intensive process to clean the voter rolls, it is one that should be a priority for Philadelphia commissioners, he said.

Democrats have controlled the city government for the past six decades, and when you have one party in control for that long “I don’t believe there was any incentive to keep the rolls clean,” Stalberg said.

But that might be changing, a little.

Newly elected City Commissioner Al Schmidt, a Republican, has made it his goal to root out election fraud in Philadelphia – and that includes taking a harder look at the city’s voter rolls.

In July, Schmidt released a report highlighting irregularities in the city’s elections and called for a review of the voting rolls to ensure ineligible voters were removed.

Until the city commissioners – a three-member body that oversees elections in Philadelphia – takes the time to go through the voter rolls again, the potential for fraud is increased.

Whether that potential turns into actual fraud is a different question. In the recent court battles over Pennsylvania’s new Voter ID law, the state could not present any evidence of in-person voter fraud.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but Stalberg said there is little evidence that it does.

“As a practical matter, we have not encountered a lot of voter fraud, but if you have bloated voter rolls it certainly makes it easier,” Stalberg said.

And even if there is no fraud, the larger rolls makes turnout at any election look lower than it actually is, he pointed out, and that just makes civic involvement look worse.


Melissa formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.