By Jared Sichel | Watchdog.Org
CHARLOTTE — With the upcoming presidential election promising to be a close one, thousands of extra votes in a swing state ain’t pocket change.
In North Carolina alone there are about 782,000 “inactive” voters, many of whom are either dead, living elsewhere, or otherwise unlikely to vote in November. In seven counties, the number of registered voters exceeds the number of voting-age citizens by a total of 4,500.
Those inactive and phantom voters, revealed by Watchdog Labs, sister organization of Watchdog.org, pose a risk to the electoral system.
“Most of the registration lists in the United States are abysmal. North Carolina is near the bottom of the list, but is hardly unique,” said Robert Pastor, director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University.
How is it possible to have more voters than people?
Because when a registered voter moves to a different county or state, or dies, the county’s election board is supposed to remove that individual from the voter rolls.
This is a basic defense against voter impersonation. But when the process isn’t thorough, it’s an opening for anyone looking to stuff the ballot box in favor of his or her candidate.
Earl Glynn, the Watchdog Labs researcher who gathered the data from the website of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, has seen a trend of over-registration — and the accompanying threat of fraud — in several other swing states states, including Ohio and Florida.
“If a list is bloated and has many names of voters who should have been removed, there can be a higher potential of voter fraud unless proper checks and balances are in place,” Glynn said.
Indeed, the recent undercover sting operation that nabbed a Democratic operative in Virginia this week relied on the ability of conspirators to vote on behalf of dead people or inactive voters.
County officials in North Carolina clean up voter rolls once every two years, as required by federal law. After nonparticipation in two consecutive federal elections, a voter is moved from “active” to “inactive” status if county officials can’t verify that person’s address. After that inactive voter doesn’t vote in an additional two federal elections, the county removes that person from the rolls.
On a daily basis, if the election board receives a change-of-address or death notice of a registered voter, then it removes that person. But if no such notification is received, four years can pass before the county removes a dead person or a former resident from the voter rolls.
In Orange County — population 136,000 — 102 percent of the voting-age population will be eligible to vote on Nov. 6. According to Glynn, typical registration rates for rural and urban counties are about 80 percent and 90 percent, respectively.
Another six counties statewide — Camden, Cherokee, Clay, Dare, Watauga, and Yancey — also represent the seemingly impossible: communities in which voter registration exceeds 100 percent of the eligible population.
In an additional six counties, 95 percent to 100 percent of voting-age residents are registered to vote.
In areas with relatively small populations and tight-knit communities, such a feat is not necessarily out of the ordinary. But in Orange County, registering every eligible citizen would require immense manpower.
According to Tracy Reams, director of the Orange County Board of Elections, the presence of a major college — UNC Chapel Hill — has a lot to do with the phenomenon.
“Once (students) move away from Orange County … we can’t just take them off the voter rolls,” Reams said. “We’ll have to maintain these people on our rolls until our list maintenance eventually kicks them out of our system.”
To put the statewide figures of 782,000 inactive voters in perspective, consider the 2008 presidential race. Just before Election Day, polls showed Sen. John McCain leading then Sen. Barack Obama by a narrow margin. The president ultimately won the state, beating McCain in North Carolina by about 13,000 votes
Fraudsters targeting North Carolina’s inactive voters for their preferred candidate would face a tedious — not to mention illegal — task.
But it’s doable.
You would need an Internet connection, $25, and some advanced software. From this website, you could pay for a full list of all registered North Carolina voters, including each of those people’s voting history, identifying citizens who haven’t voted in several election cycles.
And because death records, change of address records, and other states’ voter rolls are all available to the public, some number crunching and cross checking between lists will reveal which voters have a low or zero possibility of showing up.
Since North Carolina doesn’t have a voter identification law, if you identified an unlikely voter and showed up at a polling station, you could simply provide a name and address of anyone on the voter roll, and then vote. If that person previously had not provided a form of accepted ID to an election board, the state would accept nine types of non-photo ID on Election Day, including a utility bill or automobile registration.
Nationally, Democrats have fought Republican-led efforts to require photo ID as a condition of voting. Last year, the Republican-controlled North Carolina Legislature passed a law that would have required voters to provide photo identification at the polls. Gov. Bev Purdue, a Democrat, vetoed the legislation.
According to Sarah Preston, policy director of the ACLU of North Carolina, the current system in the state has done a good job of preventing fraud.
“There’s pretty good evidence that voter fraud is not really a problem,” Preston said. “I don’t think a thing like voter ID is a way to address any problems that there might actually be in the system.”
But according to Catherine Engelbrecht, president of the ballot integrity organization, True The Vote, voter fraud is a problem that law enforcement hasn’t discovered because it hasn’t even made “concerted efforts to search for fraud.”
“In jurisdictions where no voter-identification measures are in place,” said Engelbrecht, “there is little to mitigate the threat of in-person fraud.”