By Jayette Bolinski | Illinois Watchdog
SPRINGFIELD — Efforts to purge voter rolls in three financially strapped southern Illinois counties are over for now, but state election officials say they are continuing efforts to clean up Illinois’ lists of registered voters.
Alexander and Massac counties at the southern tip of the state culled more than 4,000 voters from the rolls for reasons, such as death and moving.
“Having good, clean election rolls avoids any possibility of people attempting impersonation voting,” said Ken Menzel, an attorney with the Illinois State Board of Elections. “While it’s not a huge problem from what we can tell, keeping your rolls clean limits the opportunity for mischief along that line.”
Voter purges, which occur every other year in Illinois counties, also help keep down costs associated with running elections. Clean voter rolls mean precinct officials have a better idea of how many voters to expect, how many ballots to print, how many machines to have on hand and how many election judges to pay.
“If you can get a few hundred people out of your voter rolls, you can consolidate people tighter into precincts, so you’re only paying to serve people who are still there and might show up to vote,” Menzel said.
Three counties in far southern Illinois, Alexander, Massac and Pulaski, were unable to purge their voter rolls as frequently as other counties because of budget constraints, causing their voter-to-over-18-population percentages to get out of whack.
Often in counties where families stay put for a long time, the percentages hover around 80 percent; more transient areas, such as large cities and suburbs, have much lower percentages. Once the percentages approach 100 percent or higher, election officials want to know what’s going on.
In May, Alexander County was at 117 percent, and Massac County was at 106 percent. By early September, Alexander dropped to 80 percent and Massac dropped to 88 percent. Alexander County was able to cull more than 2,300 voters from its rolls that in May stood at more than 7,400 registered voters. Massac culled more than 2,000. Its rolls showed more than 12,600 voters in May.
Much of the expense associated with the purge comes from postage costs when officials mail letters to addresses to confirm if the voters who are registered still live there. The State Board of Elections stepped in to help with postage costs — about $4,000 worth— in Alexander County. The board also assisted Massac County with completing its purge.
Purges had to be completed at least 90 days prior to the election. Pulaski County, which stands at about 115 percent, was unable to complete its purge by the Aug. 6 deadline but expects to finish after the election.
Hans von Spakovsky, manager of the Civil Justice Reform Initiative at the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation conservative think tank, said there are other low-cost steps counties can take to try to root out duplicate voter registrations, such as examining the Social Security Master Index for deaths and state corrections records to take felons off the rolls.
“It doesn’t cost a lot of money to do comparisons between voter registration rolls and other county and state records like the DMV to find people who have notified DMV, for example, that they have moved out of state,” said von Spakovsky. “Are they doing all those steps? If not, then they’re not using all the things that are available to them.”
Von Spakovsky, who was a member of the Federal Election Commission for two years and also worked at the U.S. Justice Department on voting rights issues, said it’s crucial that states work to cut down on duplicate voter registrations.
“When names remain on voter registration rolls of people who have died or have moved away, that provides the means to commit voter fraud,” he said, citing a recent True the Vote study that revealed that an examination of 10 percent of New York’s voter lists turned up 1,500 people registered both there and in Florida. Of those, 31 voted in both states.
“That’s after just checking 10 percent of the voter roll. There you had people taking advantage of being registered in two states, and you had fraudulent voters,” von Spakovsky said. “Does that sound like a lot of votes? Well maybe not, but if you have a close election and those happen all the time, it could make a difference in the election outcome.”
The 2002 Help America Vote Act required states to maintain a statewide voter database, which prompted Illinois to beef up its database and track duplicate registrations from one jurisdiction to another. Officials started flagging, for example, someone who registered to vote while in college and later registered to vote in the city they moved to after graduation.
Starting in 2010, Illinois election officials were able to track names and birth dates to weed out duplicate voters. In the first couple months of doing that, they cleared out about 62,000 duplicate registrations.
Menzel said he expects to see voter registration percentages — registered voters versus U.S. Census data population figures — go back up heading into the November election because of efforts to register voters on college campuses and elsewhere. An official in Champaign County, for instance, recently told Menzel someone brought in 1,600 voter registrations for students from the University of Illinois.
“It’s not going to be a surprise with this being a presidential election year for jurisdictions to all of a sudden creep up, and, to the extent that they purge again in 2014, most of the jurisdictions will roll again back down to a reasonable number,” he said.
Another factor that can skew the percentages is inaccurate U.S. Census figures. Predominantly black communities are undercounted. East St. Louis, for example, has had high voter-to-population percentages, and officials there continue to do purges of the voter rolls. It currently is at 102 percent.
“If they’ve done a heavy registration drive in a community that’s undercounted in the census, their numbers will look bad not because they have fictitious people but because they have people who weren’t counted in the Census,” Menzel said.
“You have to take the figures with the appropriate grains of salt for demographics and all that sort of thing.”