By M.D. Kittle Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Robert H. Allen died nearly four years ago at the age of 81.
But the deceased Sun Prairie man appears to be living on — at least on Wisconsin’s statewide voting list.
While the dead account for a fraction of the total 3.2 million voters on the list and the Badger State boasts one of the cleaner registration systems in the nation, election observers say unauthorized voters of any kind in any number present potential election integrity concerns.
Amid Wisconsin’s red-hot summer of state recall elections, fears of voter fraud and suspicions that one group or another could “steal an election” are more pronounced.
The broader concern, government watchdogs assert, is the question of transparency and arguably the high cost of accessing Wisconsin's voter list. The complete voter file costs thousands of dollars, pricing out the average citizen and many watchdog organizations. And the state’s strict privacy laws limit full and complete disclosure, making it difficult to definitively count the dead, for instance, on the voting list.
Wisconsin Reporter purchased the entire voting list for $12,500 — the top price charged by the Government Accountability Board, or GAB, for the complete database — and broke down the data as a public service to the voters of Wisconsin.
In an extensive review, Wisconsin Reporter found nearly 3,000 names of potentially deceased individuals. Matching information from the Social Security Death Index — including date of birth, date of death and address — to the SVRS, Wisconsin Reporter came up with the list of probable dead registrants. Furthering the search, plugging each name and birth date into a GAB database, the list was narrowed down to 979 matches — names of individuals that more than likely are dead but remain active on the list.
That’s not saying the dead are voting in Wisconsin. Cases of dead voters are extremely rare in the Badger State. But the potential exists.
Dying to vote
The Statewide Voter Registration list was born out of the 2002 Help America Vote Act, created in the shadow of the debacle that was the 2000 presidential election. Remember the dangling chad in Florida?
States received tens of millions of dollars to clean up and streamline their voter registration systems. Wisconsin followed suit, launching SVRS in 2006. It was no easy feat for a state with arguably the nation’s most decentralized election system, with some 1,850 municipal clerks running elections statewide.
Before SVRS, voter registration in Wisconsin was provincial, kind of like the classic television sitcom “Cheers,” where everybody knew your name. Clerks, at least in rural communities, matched names with faces. They still do, but now the system, elections officials say, is much tighter, much more streamlined.
Reid Magney, spokesman for GAB, the state's election agency, acknowledges there may have been incidents of dead voters, people using names of deceased residents to cast ballots, before the statewide database was implemented, but the disparate nature of the old system makes it difficult to say.
In more than 30 years, there has been one prosecuted case of dead voting in Wisconsin, Magney said. In 2008, a Milwaukee County man voted for his deceased wife, using her absentee ballot. The man, convicted of voter fraud, said he wanted to fulfill his dying wife’s wish to vote for Barack Obama.
“The myth of dead people voting persists in our political culture, because the public doesn’t see the steps that state and local election officials take behind the scenes to remove deceased persons from the voter list,” Magney said.
But at least four dead voters in Milwaukee were casting ballots in 2004, according to an investigation into voting irregularities in the city. The report, following a two-year investigation into voter irregularities, concluded there was an "illegal organized attempt to influence the outcome" of a state election.
Police found another 19 voters had voted illegally, at least seven knowingly, and many of them felons.
"That’s the terrible situation with the state's residency laws being flouted," said Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Washington, D.C., think tank Heritage Foundation, and a former Federal Elections Commission commissioner. "No one would know about it if Milwaukee police didn't’ have a special task force. How often did it occur in the past?"
While dead voters may be a comparative rarity in Wisconsin and much of the nation, the deceased — at least their names — have shown up in polling places, affecting elections.
Sure there’s Chicago, where dead voters and other acts of fraud, so the old argument goes, cost Vice President Richard Nixon the presidency in 1960. But there’s Missouri, and New York, California and Texas, too.
The award-winning TexasWatchdog.org’s 2008 investigation into voting irregularities in Houston’s Harris County found 4,000 people whose names were listed on the county’s voter rolls and in a federal database of death records. The analysis found dozens of those individuals apparently cast ballots from beyond the grave.
In races where every vote counts, dozens of votes can make a profound difference. The investigation noted two Texas elections that had been decided by 300 or fewer votes. Former President George W. Bush won Florida by 1,665 votes, according to a hand recount commissioned by USA Today, the Miami Herald and Knight Ridder newspapers, following the contested election.
"This is subverting the ballot," said John Fund, a Wall Street Journal columnist and author of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy," told Texas Watchdog. "Just like you counterfeit dollars, we take it seriously; if you counterfeit votes, we should take it equally seriously, and we should punish people seriously for trying to subvert democracy."
In 2006, Missouri was hit with one of the first federal lawsuits charging the Show Me State with failing to maintain its voting records properly. The federal Justice Department found that in numerous counties, the voting registration list was larger, sometimes as high as 150 percent, than the census figures.
An appeals court reversed a lower court's ruling that the state acted properly, but the case was dismissed by the Obama administration in the early days of Obama's presidency.
John Aristotle Phillips has been tracking the issue of dead voters and what he describes as “dead wood” — registered voters who have died, moved or can’t be found — for 25 years.
“We like dead people as much as anyone else; we just don’t think they should be voting,” said Phillips, CEO of Aristotle International Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan voter information tracker.
Aristotle International’s 2010 study of voter registration records found 3.3 million deceased individuals on the rolls, including an estimated 116,483 in Massachusetts.
“With deadwood exceeding one in seven votes in some counties, candidates might as well spend a day a week campaigning in the cemetery,” Phillips is fond of saying.
But while some voting lists are littered with the names of the deceased, Phillips acknowledges dead voting remains a rare occurrence.
“It’s not like a bank where there’s a real big incentive to break into someone’s account,” he said. “You would have to do it on a massive level, and that’s not happening.”
The 979 names of probable deceased individuals on Wisconsin’s voting rolls represent approximately .031 percent of the state’s voter registration list. As GAB’s Magney puts it, that’s a “fairly tight list.”
But it isn’t fail-safe.
The Government Accountability Board raked out an average of 6,064 names of deceased people per month from the voter list in 2010, for a total of 72,770. Every two years, the agency goes through a four-year purge of the voter registration file, kicking out the names of the fallen.
There is a natural lag between a voter death and the canceling of the name. It typically takes the state Department of Health Services six months to send the death certificate to GAB, which then marks those individuals as inactive. It’s then up to municipal clerks to remove the names.
“Some clerks do this regularly, while others do it prior to printing their poll lists to make sure dead voters are removed before election,” Magney said. “As a result, the number of cancellations each month fluctuates based on when the clerks do their work, and it may take longer than six months to remove the deceased voter from the list.”
In many cases, Wisconsin Reporter found individuals who died more than two years ago still on the rolls.
The death certificates that the accountability board receives from DHS contains only the names of people who have died in Wisconsin. A resident who dies on vacation in Florida, for instance, would not make the Wisconsin death certificate list, and could remain on the voting roll.
Magney said the state purchased the Social Security Death Index and has used it to remove many dead from the voter rolls.
Tracking the dead in the voter registration system is tricky business. The state’s strict privacy laws make it nearly impossible for the average citizen to know for certain precisely how many dead there are on the database.
The voter registry includes only the basics: name, address, information about the voter’s district and the voter history (as in elections voted in, not how the person voted). Most personal identifiers are prohibited, including Social Security numbers and date of birth.
Therein lies the problem. Data on birth is critical in matching voter names, and ultimately determining who should be on the list and who shouldn’t.
“Without birthdates, there’s no way to find out that there are dead voters, “ said Kristin McMurray, managing editor of Sunshine Review, a nonprofit advocate promoting transparency in state and local government .
McMurray said governments often cite personal privacy as a defense in shielding information, but the owners of the government – the people – generally end up being left in the dark.
“It’s not a citizen’s place to trust those in power,” she said. “Quite frankly, the information is ours. It’s public information, and it’s public information for a reason.”
Wisconsin Reporter was able to track deceased individuals on the voter database through a labor-intensive review, matching names, birthdates, addresses and other information to a Government Accountability Board’s Voter Public Access file, that bills itself as giving “Wisconsin voters one-stop access to information about exercising their right to vote.”
But you’ll need a date of birth to search the field. Check it out at vpa.wi.gov
“We wouldn’t have a business here if it was really easy to get these lists,” said Phillips.
And then there is the question of costs.
Wisconsin has some of the highest charges for accessing voter rolls in the nation, although significantly lower than Florida’s Miami-Dade County, according to Sunshine Review. The organization faces a bill of $22,000 after filing a Freedom of Information Act request seeking information on how taxpayer funds are spent.
GAB’s Magney said the cost to access Wisconsin’s voter list helps maintain the Statewide Voter Registration System.
In fiscal year 2011, the agency spent $1.06 million maintaining the list, Magney said. That does not include the cost of the SVRS program staff or training for local election officials. The agency took in $176,000 from sales of the list.
“Not everyone buys the whole list as (Wisconsin Reporter) did,” Magney said. “Some buy just an Assembly or Senate district.”
Wisconsin’s new voter ID law, requiring residents to show photo identification at polling places, is expected to provide another layer of protection in what Magney said is a very secure election system.
But voters in the state Senate recall elections Tuesday and Aug. 16 will not be required to show IDs to cast ballots in the state Senate recall races. They will be asked to show an ID as part of a training exercise for election officials, but voters will not be denied a ballot if they cannot produce identification. Voters will be required to show photo IDs during the 2012 elections.
But even the best voter registration system has its cracks, McMurray said.
“They might be doing a perfect job and may not have a single deceased voter in Wisconsin, but history does not tell us that,” the Sunshine Review managing editor said.