By Deena Winter and Earl Glynn | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN — Seven sparsely populated Nebraska counties have more registered voters than people older than 18, a Nebraska Watchdog analysis of U.S. Census and voter registration data finds.
About 80 percent of Nebraska’s adults are registered to vote, according to the state’s voter rolls. But in those seven counties, the number of people registered to vote is greater than the number of people of voting age. Another 11 Nebraska counties are near the 100 percent mark, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.
Election officials say that’s because federal law mandates a long process to purge ineligible voters from their rolls if, that is, first-hand evidence the person has moved, died or is a felon, for example, doesn’t exist.
Absent first-hand proof, officials must send the voter a notice asking him to confirm his status. Without a response, election officials must wait two federal elections before removing the person — if that person doesn’t vote in those elections.
But in a state without any requirement that voters show identification, election watchdogs worry those lists of inactive voters could be used to commit voter fraud.
Secretary of State John Gale said while the removal process can be frustrating and lengthy, it’s intended to protect people from being arbitrarily deleted from voter rolls. The state tries to keep its voter lists clean by searching postal service change-of-address data every six months, checking death notices weekly and felony records monthly, he said. Nebraska also cross-checks its registration database with 14 other states.
“We think we have an excellent list-maintenance system,” he said. “Within the limits of state and federal law, we do an excellent job.”
Loup County, for instance, has had more voters than the U.S. Census says it has people older than 18 for more than seven years. Its current voter registration list comprises 106 percent of the voting-age population.
Debbie Postany serves as the county clerk, county assessor, register of deeds and election commissioner of Loup County. She said the National Voter Registration Act requires her to wait two federal election cycles before removing an inactive voter who hasn’t communicated with her. It can take six to eight years to remove a voter from the list.
“I work really hard to keep them current,” she said. “I’m trying to get them off.”
Loup County has a square mile of land for almost every resident. The 2010 Census shows Loup County has 632 residents, with 491 older than 18. Postany said 505 people are registered to vote, but 38 are going through the NVRA-mandated removal process. That leaves 467 active voters of the 491 people counted by the Census.
Still, are 95 percent of Loup County’s residents really registered to vote? Postany wouldn’t be surprised: She says local teachers get students to register as soon as they’re eligible and the Census may count college students and Loup County residents who live in nursing homes in other counties. Then there are the transient farm and rancher workers registered through “motor voter” laws, and “within two months, they’re gone.”
“I don’t find it odd in a little community that I have that many people registered to vote,” she said.
Nebraska’s most sparsely populated counties are more likely to have what some call “voter bloat.” The seven counties with more registered voters than adults are Loup, Blaine, Hooker, Wheeler, Keya Paha, Kimball and Hayes. While Kimball County has a population of about 3,800, the other six counties are home to 1,000 or fewer people, with Arthur, Blaine and Loup counties among the five smallest in Nebraska.
Another 11 counties have unrealistically high numbers of registered voters – near the 100 percent mark – Sheridan, Arthur, Custer, Logan, McPherson, Thurston, Banner, Boone, Gosper, Keith and York counties.
In small counties, the algorithms for estimating population aren’t as accurate, Gale said. Census estimates particularly have problems, compared to official census data.
“It doesn’t mean there are phantom people,” he said. “It doesn’t mean there’s some malevolent, evil manipulation going on.”
While there’s a remote possibility a few random impersonators could take advantage of voter bloat, Gale says, it’s highly unlikely a massive fraud could be pulled off. To influence an election, thousands of people would have to be coordinated and persuaded to commit a felony.
“What’s the gain?” he said. “Who’s gonna risk a felony?”
Of course, in smaller elections that come down to one or two votes, such a fraud would be easier to pull off. But Postany said committing voter fraud would be difficult in her small, close-knit community.
“My (election) board knows everybody that walks in to vote,” she said. “It would be very difficult to do in a little county.”
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The research behind this story:
• Charts for each Nebraska county comparing U.S. Census and voter registration data (last page is state total)
• Technical details of comparison of U.S. Census and Nebraska voter registration data, Watchdog Labs