Conservative public interest lawyers sent letters Monday giving the District of Columbia, Iowa and Colorado 90 days to prove they are taking steps to delete from their registration lists dead voters and former residents, or else face a lawsuit.
Judicial Watch said the District has more people registered to vote than the Census Bureau says would be eligible, based on age. Counties in Iowa and Colorado face the same situation — an indication, the conservative group said, that those jurisdictions need to clean up their rolls.
The warning letters are the latest effort from conservatives to push back against an Obama administration that has largely ignored worries about voter fraud and chosen instead to focus on ballot access by cracking down on states that enact voter ID rules.
“The administration is refusing to enforce the law, and it’s leading to dirtier and dirtier elections,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch. “If you’re over 100 percent of your list in terms of eligible voting-age population, that’s a pretty easy case to make.”
Local officials said they do their best to balance voter access with clean rolls, and they point to steps they are taking — including new computer technology — to try to meet both goals.
“We are always looking to make sure our voter rolls are as accurate and updated as possible,” said Tamara Robinson, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Board of Elections.
She said the District has a particularly tough time given the young and transient makeup of the city’s population but that the board has “not run across one single case where someone has attempted to vote in D.C. and someplace else.”
An investigation last year by The Washington Times, however, found 13,000 people who appeared to be registered in the city and in neighboring Prince George’s County. They included people whose names showed up as having voted in recent elections in the District, even though they live in Prince George’s.
Ballot access and integrity
The National Voter Registration Act, commonly known as “motor-voter,” requires states to make it easier to register to vote, but it also pushes jurisdictions to keep their rolls clean.
Those goals sometimes conflict.
Robert Popper, a senior lawyer at Judicial Watch who served in the Justice Department’s voting rights section under President Obama and President George W. Bush, said the current administration has focused on ballot access but slighted the integrity side.
During the last years of Mr. Bush’s tenure, he said, the Justice Department brought five lawsuits seeking to clean up voter rolls. In the six years under Mr. Obama, no such lawsuits have been filed.
The Justice Department didn’t return a message seeking comment.
Myrna Perez, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s democracy program, said all sides agree that voter rolls should be as clean and accurate as possible.
“The problem comes when the procedures that are undertaken to clean the rolls are done in a way that threatened eligible voters with removal without enough time to correct errors, without the kind of oversight or transparency to reveal any problems in the identification process, and they’re being done in a haphazard way that’s prone to a lot of mistakes,” she said.
The definition of ‘reasonable’
The test for whether a state is meeting its obligations to keep voter rolls clean is whether it is taking “reasonable” steps.
Legal analysts said case law is still being developed on what that means.
But a number of states are hoping it includes agreements like the Electronic Registration Information Center, a consortium of states that share information with one another about voting rolls.
The District recently joined the center, which Ms. Robinson said should help because Maryland and Virginia are also members, and many people move among the three jurisdictions.
Colorado, one of the states Judicial Watch has targeted in its warning letters, is also part of the registration center.
Rich Coolidge, a spokesman for Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler, said state officials are taking a look at the Judicial Watch warning letter and will figure out how to respond to the large amount of documents requested.
“I don’t think you’ll find a bigger champion than Secretary of State Scott Gessler here in Colorado of maintaining clean and accurate voter rolls,” the spokesman said, though he added that the legislature would prefer “the honor system.”
Iowa’s secretary of state office didn’t return a message seeking comment.
Judicial Watch sent inquiry letters to nine other states asking them for more information about their voter roll cleanup procedures.
David Becker, director of election initiatives at the Pew Charitable Trusts, which provided assistance in the formation of the Electronic Registration Information Center, said one in eight voter registration records is inaccurate or out of date.
In the seven states that started the information center in 2012, the system found 850,000 people who had moved but still had active registrations for their previous addresses.
Most of those moved within a state — meaning the state motor vehicles bureau already had up-to-date information, but it was never conveyed to election officials.
Checks using the Electronic Registration Information Center also found 23,000 dead people listed.
The center uses a number of data lists and a complex identity-matching algorithm to identify whether records are up to date.
But it’s up to states to decide who gets culled. That can take time as officials try to make sure they aren’t canceling a valid voter.
In the District, election officials said they look at those who haven’t voted in two consecutive federal election cycles, and then send out canvas cards. Voters who appear to have moved are then put on the inactive list and ultimately are purged altogether.
Ms. Perez said interstate agreements can help with voter roll maintenance, but they also can flag names that shouldn’t be purged.
A Brennan Center report last year on Virginia voters said 40,000 names were purged based on information from an interstate agreement on voter rolls. But the report argued that there were “large error rates” in the purge, which led to some valid voters being eliminated from lists.
Some of those ended up having to cast provisional ballots on Election Day.