A New Day for a Cleaner Election

If every vote counts””and razor-thin election margins prove this is true””then it certainly matters if persons known to the state to be deceased are “voting.” (That is, people are casting fraudulent ballots on their behalf.) Unfortunately, dozens of such ballots appear to have been cast in Oregon last November.

Last fall Cascade Policy Institute compared the Social Security Administration’s Master Death List with the Oregon Voter Registration List and found 6,142 matches. 1,209 of these matches were still active Oregon voters, and all persons on the active voter list received Oregon ballots.

We compared matched names and voter identifications with ballots actually cast in 2008. Fifteen people among the first few hundred files we examined (who were certified to be deceased by either a family member or by actual death records) had mysteriously cast their vote after the date of their death.

I met with Secretary of State Kate Brown in mid-February, personally handed her a formal letter of complaint, and asked for an investigation into the 15 names uncovered in our initial investigation. Since that meeting Cascade has filed a second complaint, containing an additional 17 names to be investigated (32 names in all).

Cascade received a letter dated February 17, 2009 from the state’s Election Division certifying that our complaint was received and a case number had been assigned. It further stated that the case file will remain confidential until the case is closed due to the nature of the allegations and the election law involved.

Of the 6,142 people on the Oregon Voter Registration List who were reported as being deceased, 4,033 had died in 2006 or before, 2,130 in 2004 or before, 1,210 in 2002 or before and 659 had passed away before 2000. Some of the names on the list appeared to have died well over a decade ago. The second complaint we filed contained nine names of people who are on record as having died in the 1980s and 1990s. Why they were still on the election rolls so many years later is also a question that needs to be addressed.

Many of the names we provided the Secretary of State have death certificates or family confirmations of death on file. Each name is an exact match using first and last name, date of birth and last-known ZIP code. Each has a specific date of death recorded. Yet, each of these names also has a voter record that clearly indicated this person somehow voted in 2008.

Under current law (247.570) a county registrar must provide the county clerk with a death certificate if a deceased person is registered to vote in that county. That individual then would be removed from the election rolls. Under the same law, the Department of Health and Human Services should provide the Secretary of State with the names of persons who died but have no death certificate. The Secretary of State must notify the county of record, and that county clerk must cancel the registration for that person.

Our investigation clearly shows a breakdown in this system. Many of the names on the list we provided died in Oregon, but no action was taken by their counties. Another issue is that many of the names provided had deaths reported in other states, yet they remained active voters in Oregon.

Bills are being introduced in this session of the Oregon State Legislature that address many of the flaws in the current election process. One of those bills, HB 3433, tackles the dead voter problem head-on. The bill requires the Secretary of State to compare the Social Security Death List with the Oregon Voter Registration List every three months and to provide any match to the appropriate county clerk for action.

The County Clerk is then directed to send a certified letter to notify the voter that he or she has been reported as deceased by the Social Security Administration. If the elector does not respond in 30 days, his or her name will be removed from the election rolls.

An up-to-date and “clean” voter registration list has many benefits beyond keeping elections secure. This list is public information and is used in other legitimate ways. Counties use the list to find prospective jurors. Political campaigns have been frustrated by thousands of wrong phone numbers and inaccurate information. Research companies use the list to compile data for business clients. Countless hours and dollars have been wasted because of Oregon’s sloppy election records. Under Secretary Brown, there is hope that all of this will be corrected, so that every vote counted will have been cast by a living Oregonian legally registered to vote.

Jeff Alan is Chief Investigator at Cascade Policy Institute, a non-partisan free market research center based in Portland, Oregon.