|Sunday, October 29, 2006|
Valley's dead cast their votes
Statewide database of registered voters has potential for errors and fraud
By John Ferro
Steven T. Vermilye was a home inspector and general contractor who grew up in Westchester County, went to college in Texas and settled in New Paltz in 1971.
David S. Stairs was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and came to the mid-Hudson Valley in 1927, where as a 16-year-old he pounded hot rivets into the New York Central Railroad at Croton-Harmon and then spent 45 years working his way up through Texaco's research center in Glenham.
Betty L. Johnson came from a small town in Virginia and moved to Beacon when she was 17, raised eight children while boxing duct tape at Tuck Tape and working in the kitchen at the Castle Point veterans hospital.
The three mid-Hudson Valley residents had little in common during their lives, but share one thing now: They all have records of casting a vote after they had died.
Names still remain on rolls
The new statewide database of registered voters 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 is the first to examine the potential for errors and fraud in New York's three-month-old database. 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," a database of 77 million records of deaths dating to 1937.
The state database was current as of Oct. 4, the master death index through the second quarter of 2006.
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. Typically, records of votes by the dead are the result of bookkeeping errors and do not result in the casting of extra ballots. The Journal did not find any fraud in the local matches it investigated.
"Of course we are concerned about people voting if they are dead," George Stanton, chief information officer for the state Board of Elections, said in an e-mail response.
Stanton said an updated version of the voter list is under development.
"Any tool that will help us maintain a more accurate voter list will be considered for use," Stanton said.
Among the Journal's findings:
# The Journal identified dead people on the voter rolls in all 62 counties and people in as many as 45 counties who had votes recorded after they had died.
# One address in the Bronx was listed as the home for as many as 191 registered voters who had died. The address is 5901 Palisade Ave., site of the Hebrew Home for the Aged.
# Democrats who cast votes after they died outnumbered Republicans by more than a 4-to-1 margin. The reason: Most of them came from Democrat-dominated New York City, where higher population produced more matches.
Anomaly is not unknown
Tales of votes being cast from the grave are part of elections lore. 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.
In one of the more notorious examples, inspectors estimated 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, a dead man's signature was clearly spelled out on voting records even though he could only mark an "X" because he had no fingers or thumbs.
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, but that 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.
"The only reason it's a potential problem is that elections are very contentious," said David Gamache, Dutchess County's Republican elections commissioner. "And there is a reason why the election law takes up almost 500 pages. If there is a way to cheat people, people are going to look at it and see if it is viable and whether or not they should do it."
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.
"It's almost damned if you do, damned if you don't," said Doug Chapin, director of the nonpartisan Election Reform Information Project in Washington. The nonprofit clearinghouse was formed in 2001 with a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts to track election reform developments around the country.
Other states have used the death index to supplement data collected by their health departments.
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 ballots 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.
In March, the U.S. Department of Justice sued New York over its failure to meet that deadline. In response to a court-approved settlement, the state completed a preliminary version of its database in time for the 2006 fall elections. The database merged each of the 62 county files into one. It is updated daily with changes sent in batches by the counties. The final version will allow county officials to log in and make changes directly to the database.
New York has not decided whether it will use the Social Security Administration's database to search for dead voters, according to Stanton, the manager of data processing services for the state board.
Stanton said one concern is the state, by law, can only ask for the last four digits of an applicant's Social Security number.
"Nobody wants to remove someone from the voter rolls who may not be dead," Stanton said. "I got one of those calls once."
For now, the responsibility of removing dead voters falls on county boards of elections. Each month, counties receive a list of recent deaths from the state Health Department and cross-check that information against their rolls. In August, 21 people were removed by Dutchess County's board this way.
System isn't foolproof
That system does not always account for all deaths.
"You are going to miss people that went across the border, who may have gone hunting or fishing someplace" and then died, said Steve Excell, Washington's assistant secretary of state.
In Washington, 5,006 of the nearly 19,579 deceased residents it identified — more than one in four — would not have been removed from the rolls if the state had not matched their information against the master death index, officials said.
Having deceased residents on the rolls can create records of a vote that never took place. The Journal investigated seven local cases identified in its computerized analysis. Each one was either a database mismatch or an accounting error. The Journal found no examples of fraud.
Stairs, the Glasgow native from Beacon, died June 11, 1998 at the age of 87. Computer records indicate he had voted in the 2002 general election.
After examining poll books, Dutchess County elections officials determined the computer record was the product of an accounting error. A poll worker had filled a line in the poll books that is used to denote the order in which each person voted. For instance, when the 25th person in a district arrives, the poll worker writes the number "25" next to that person's signature.
In Stairs' case, the poll worker had assigned a counter number to him in place of another voter on the same page in the poll book who showed up to vote. When the poll books were scanned into the database, Stairs' record was updated to show he had voted. But no one signed the poll book in Stairs' name, no absentee ballot was received and no vote in his name was counted toward any election results.
"He would have had a laugh over that," his son, David Stairs, said.
Johnson, the Beacon woman, died June 22, 2003, of heart failure. She was 59. Her record indicates she voted in the 2004 general election. The reason: When her daughter, Betty J. Johnson, arrived to vote that day, she signed in her mother's space. In what appears to be a case of mistaken identity, no one noticed the two different signatures and the younger Johnson said she had no idea she had signed for her mother.
"They're still sending my mother's mail," Johnson said.
Boards of elections use mail checks as one way to verify the status of registered voters. If a card is returned by the postal service, the voter is flagged as inactive. That method does not work if the card is not returned — if family members are living at the same address and still collecting their deceased parents' mail, for instance.
Ballot was misrecorded
In Ulster County, Vermilye, the general contractor from New Paltz, voted for the last time in his life in 2000. Vermilye had a malignant brain tumor and needed a wheelchair to get around. He asked his daughter, Lydia Weiss, to take him to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Senate primary.
"Something like that with a wheelchair and a 200-plus pound man who was immobilized was no easy endeavor," Weiss said. "He lived five miles away, and the whole thing took maybe an hour and half. The whole reason we went and made such an effort is he thought it was going to be his last. He knew that Hillary had the primary in the bag, but wanted her to have one more vote on her side."
Vermilye lived long enough to cast one more vote, by absentee ballot, in the November general election. He died June 19, 2001, at the age of 54.
So it came as some surprise to his daughter that the Ulster County Board of Elections had a record of him voting in the 2004 general election.
Again, there was no fraud. Ulster officials found an absentee ballot cast by Vermilye's son, Jamie, had mistakenly been added to his father's record.
"I was willing to assume it was a clerical error," Weiss said. "I am so proud to be from New York, and not a state like Florida or Ohio. But it is discouraging to see even a state [such as New York] — that hasn't been revealed to have problems that have made it onto the national radar — is rife with problems of its own."