Earlier this year, I wrote a series of columns bemoaning the low voter turnout in the May primary and asked why only 20 percent of Indiana’s 4.4 million registered voters bothered to go to the polls.
I based that question on what I know now was a faulty premise. There are indeed about 4.4 million people on the state’s voter registration rolls, but I don’t know how many of them are dead, have moved away or were otherwise ineligible to vote.
In a story recently, I reported that Indiana’s voter rolls are in disarray.
How off are they? Hard to know. It varies from county to county and depends on the time and resources that local election officials are devoting to the task.
Here’s one indicator there’s a problem: The U.S. Department of Justice, citing information provided by the state, says there are at least nine counties in Indiana that have a higher number of people on their voters rolls than the number of people in those counties who are old enough to vote.
A lawsuit filed against state election officials in June by Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, puts the number of problematic counties much higher.
It’s not just an Indiana problem. The non-partisan Pew Center for the States found that across the U.S., one in eight active registrations is invalid or inaccurate. That includes 1.8 million dead people listed as active voters.
Having bad voter rolls is a problem. It makes it easier to commit voter fraud: you don’t need to provide identification to request or fill out an absentee ballot, so you could do so in somebody else’s name.
Pew researchers don’t think fraud is a problem. But they do think the perception that fraud could so easily occur takes a toll on voter confidence.
That’s why the same Pew report included this finding: One in four people who are eligible to vote — about 51 million potential voters — aren’t on the registration rolls. They’ve just never signed up.
How did we get here? Part of the answer is the classic unintended consequence of a well-intentioned law. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the Motor Voter Act, required state governments to allow qualified voters to register to vote whenever they applied for or renewed their driver’s license or applied for social services.
It made it easier for people to exercise their right to vote. But the law made it much harder and much more expensive for local election officials to keep their voter rolls current. You can’t simply pluck someone from the rolls because you think they’re dead or have moved away.
The law now requires a series of lengthy steps — including mass mailings to all voters to find the ones that have moved away and getting death certificates for the dead ones — to purge the rolls.
Under the old way, voter rolls were getting purged too quickly. Under the current system, they’re not getting purged fast enough.
Indiana’s 92 counties are stuck with this problem, but it needs a statewide fix because of the dollars involved. The last time Indiana found itself in this spot, back in 2006, the Justice Department compelled the state to clean up the voter rolls. The cost to do so then was $2 million.
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at email@example.com