During the plagues of the Middle Ages, community efforts to remove stinking corpses were reportedly signaled by the drivers of horse-drawn carts passing along roads and streets crying out, “Bring out your dead.”
Dead Voters Casting Ballots Not Just a Halloween Prank
November 10, 2006
by Joseph P. Tartaro
In more modern times, I suspect that local political hacks in both the Republican and Democratic parties, who are trying to get the party faithful out to vote for their candidates, may have been silently whispering, “Bring out your dead.”
While this column is being written on Halloween, exactly a week before Election Day 2006, the topic of dead voters is an old one, and possibly of unusual importance in an election where control of both houses of Congress appears to be up for grabs.
This year there are really only about six truly competitive races among the 33 Senate seats that are contested. And only about two dozen House seats are considered true contests. In all other races, the incumbents are expected to win handily.
But in spite of poll reports that have made some Democrats truly giddy at the prospects of returning to control of Congress after 12 years in Limbo, experts in both parties admit that the final results will depend on the turnout by the core faithful of both parties. The only polls that really matter are the ones cast by the voters, hopefully live ones. And national Republican and Democratic strategists are banking heavily on their ability to fire up their base voters, the people who can really affect close races.
Close Votes, Late Results
It is kind of late to say much about this congressional election that has not already been said either in these pages or elsewhere. We will be reporting the results of those elections in our next issue, which has been purposely scheduled to allow our editors to gather the very latest results in all contested and problem balloting, especially in those states where mail ballots only have to be postmarked on Election Day and counted days or even weeks later.
However, we urge all of our readers who have not already done so when they read this column to be sure to fulfill their duty to voteno matter which candidates you prefer. Unfortunately in the US, we don’t have a terribly good record of getting out most of the eligible voters.
But the rumors of voting by the dead are not new, especially in big cities. Which is why I was delighted to find an Oct. 29 report on the subject by John Ferro in The Poughkeepsie Journal, publishing in the Hudson Valley of New York.
The article is on point and informative, so I will quote directly from it in the balance of my column.
Ferro begins his column with the names and histories of three people who had died before they finished casting ballots, in some cases years before. All lived at one time in Hudson Valley cities and towns. All had been register voters.
The three mid-Hudson Valley residents had little in common during their lives, but share one thing now: Records exist of them casting a vote after they died, Ferro reported.
“A new statewide database of registered voters in New York contains as many as 77,000 dead people on its rolls, and as many as 2,600 of them have cast votes from the grave, according to a Poughkeepsie Journal computer-assisted analysis.
“The Journal’s analysis of New York’s 3-month-old database is the first to determine the potential for errors and fraud in voting. It matched names, dates of birth and ZIP codes in the state’s database of 11.7 million voter registration records against the same information in the Social Security Administration’s ‘Death Master File.’ That database has 77 million records of deaths dating back to 1937.
“The state database was current as of Oct. 4, the master death index through June.
“The same process has been used to identify deceased registrants in other states, but is not yet being used in New York.
“The numbers do not indicate how much fraud is the result of dead voters in New York, only the potential for it,” Ferro reported. “Typically, records of votes by the dead are the result of bookkeeping errors and do not mean any extra ballots were actually cast.”
He said The Journal did not find any fraud in the local matches it investigated.
But among the Journal’s findings Ferro listed:
- There were dead people on the voter rolls in all of New York’s 62 counties and people in as many as 45 counties who had votes recorded after they had died.
- One Bronx address was listed as the home for as many as 191 registered voters who had died, an address that is the site of the Hebrew Home for the Aged.
- Democrats who cast votes after they died outnumbered Republicans by more than 4 to 1. The reason: Most of them came from Democrat-dominated New York City, where the higher population produced more matches.
“Tales of votes being cast from the grave are part of election lore,” Ferro continued. “Last year, at least two dead voters were counted in a Tennessee state Senate race that was decided by fewer than 20 votes. As a result of that and other irregularities, seven poll workers were fired, an entire precinct was dissolved and the election results were voided by the state Senate, forcing the removal of the presumed winner. Three elections workers were indicted for faking the votes.
“In 1997, a judge declared a Miami mayoral election invalid because of widespread fraud, including dead voters.
“And in one of the more notorious examples, inspectors estimated that as many as 1 in 10 ballots cast in Chicago during the 1982 Illinois gubernatorial election were fraudulent for various reasons, including votes by the dead.
“In one reported case,” Ferro continued, “a dead man’s signature was clearly spelled out on voting records even though while alive he could only mark an ‘X’ because he had no fingers.
“In most cases, instances of dead voters can be attributed to database mismatches and clerical errors. For instance, the Social Security Administration admits there are people in its master death index who are not dead.
“They include Wappingers Falls resident Hilde Stafford, an 85-year-old native of Germany. The master index lists her date of death as June 15, 1997.
“ ‘I’m still alive,’ she said. ‘I still vote.’
“State and federal laws require dead voters to be purged from the rolls,” Ferro reported, “but it requires a tricky balance of commitment and restraint. Failing to do so enhances the opportunity for fraud, the case of one person pretending to be another.
“Removing dead voters also can save boards of elections the cost of sending unnecessary mail-checks and absentee ballots. But overzealous matching can result in legitimate voters being removed.”
Ferro used examples to show how just a few votes can decide a major election. Other states have used the death index to supplement data collected by their health departments, he said. Earlier this year, officials in Washington state used health department records and the death index to remove 19,579 deceased people in the first four months after its statewide database was created. The effort there was underscored by the results of the 2004 gubernatorial election, in which Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire won by 129 votes after two recounts of the more than 2.8 million cast.
States are creating statewide databases to comply with the Help America Vote Act, the federal legislation that was sparked by the controversy surrounding the 2000 presidential election. The deadline for compliance was Jan. 1.
The Poughkeepsie Journal article doesn’t point any fingers at any state or locality for fraudulently voting the dead. But it happens, and it’s not just a Halloween prank.
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