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Editorial

Dead people can't vote

Inaccuracies in voter registrations indicate not ballot fraud but the need to update procedures.

February 19, 2012
  • An employee of the Stricklin/Snively Mortuary walks past vacant booths at the polling station in Harbor City.
An employee of the Stricklin/Snively Mortuary walks past vacant booths… (Los Angeles Times )

A new study by the Pew Center on the States concludes that 24 million voter registrations in the United States — about 1 in 8 — are no longer valid or are significantly inaccurate. More than 1.8 million dead people are listed as active voters, and 2.75 million voters have active registrations in more than one state.

At first blush, these findings might seem to shore up those — mostly in the Republican Party — who argue that voting fraud is endemic and must be combated by stronger enforcement measures, such as a requirement that voters carry photo IDs. But the authors of the study don't draw that conclusion, and reforms to address inaccurate records need not impose burdensome identification requirements that disproportionately disadvantage minorities and the poor.

The Pew study was based on an analysis of data drawn from state and local governments, commercial sources and the National Change of Address database run by theU.S. Postal Service. It traced inaccuracies to several factors, notably election officials' reliance on paper documentation and the fact that the American population is much more mobile than it was in the 19th century, when many voting registration procedures were established. The study notes that about 1 in 8 Americans moved during the 2008 and 2010 election years.

Redundancies and other errors in registration information are obviously not desirable, but they don't automatically translate into the sort of polling place fraud alleged by advocates of onerous voter identification laws. (Nor would a photo-ID requirement prevent a voter registered in three places from voting three times.) But lingering perceptions of fraud could be dispelled, and money could be saved, if the states modernized their registration systems.

Pew proposes three initiatives that states could undertake individually or in concert. First, registration lists should be continually compared to other data sources, including post office information about changes of address and, more controversially, private databases. Discrepancies should lead to double-checking. Data-matching techniques and security protocols should be used to ensure the accuracy and security of electronic registration files. And new ways should be found for voters to update their information online (or by telephone). The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law also has proposed a "one-stop, automated" registration system under which a variety of government agencies — not just motor vehicle departments — would provide information about voters to an electronic database.

Technology is not a panacea for increasing turnout or preventing fraud. But the Pew study suggests that the current antiquated registration system is both error-ridden and inconvenient to Americans seeking to exercise the franchise.

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