Monday, October 30, 2006

Clerical Errors, Not Voter Fraud

Voter fraud. It’s a phrase on the minds and lips of many voters, election officials, and politicians across the country. That’s probably why the Poughkeepsie Journal chose to title an article in yesterday's edition “Dead Voters Continue to Cast Ballots in New York.” And if this title were an accurate representation of the article it tops, it would indeed be timely and newsworthy.

Luckily for those of us who have the attention span to read more than a couple of sentences, voter fraud is in fact not proven to be rampant in our state. The irresponsible, sensational headline notwithstanding, the article is careful and full of caveats, like these passages:
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.
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.

Most of the rest of the article is similarly nuanced, explaining the difficulty of creating and maintaining accurate voter databases, and the limitations of broad attempts to match the voter rolls to other sources in order to determine a voter's eligibility. The careful overall balance of the article makes the lead that much more unwelcome. Sure, it may draw readers in. But it is also likely to misinform, and in the process, does a disservice to those very same readers that the Journal hopes to attract and retain.

We believe that there is little reason for panic. Though Halloween is upon us, the dead aren't walking the earth in the direction of the polls. New York's new statewide registration list is late in coming, and there are certainly kinks to be worked out. But given time and care, New York's voter rolls will be cleaner and more accurate than ever before, as long as the cleansing process is accomplished in ways that protect the rights of eligible citizens. As the article notes, "Overzealous [purging] can result in legitimate voters being removed." Which is precisely why the article's overzealous headline is such a disappointment.

Update: Our very own Justin Levitt's piece on this subject on

Categories: General, Voting

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