Monday, October 27, 2008

Mississippi has more registered voters than adults

More than a third of Mississippi counties have more registered voters than residents old enough to cast a ballot, according to an Associated Press analysis.

In addition to providing ammunition for people who say the voting system is vulnerable to fraud, the flabby voting rolls may make it difficult to accurately determine turnout for the Nov. 4 presidential election.

"There is no reason in the world why some of these counties should have more registered voters than they have living, breathing people," Mississippi Senate Elections Committee Chairman Terry Burton said.

Despite the inflated voter rolls, "it's important not to leap to the conclusion that this means there have been many illegitimate voters," said Adam Skaggs, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. He said the bigger problem _ in Mississippi and across the U.S. _ is that people have not registered at all or don't know they have been purged from the rolls.

In Mississippi, AP's county-by-county analysis compared voter registration figures released Thursday by the Secretary of State's office with Census figures from 2000, which provide the latest and most detailed information for the entire state. Twenty-nine of Mississippi's 82 counties had more registered voters than people of voting age. Alabama has a similar problem _ The Birmingham News found that six of 67 counties there have more registered voters than people of voting age.

Mississippi and Alabama are heavily Republican states expected to choose John McCain over Democrat Barack Obama, though they have U.S. House and Senate races that could be close.

"The opportunity for fraud exists certainly if people are on the rolls that shouldn't be there," Burton said. "If there's one case of fraud, there's one too many." He said people could theoretically vote, then go back and try to pass themselves off as people who have died, though he does not expect that.

In Mississippi, only first-time voters who registered by mail must show identification. Without an ID requirement, election officials must rely on poll workers and voters to be honest.

In five Mississippi counties with inflated rolls, the discrepancy can be explained by rapid population growth. In the rest, the population has grown slowly or remained stagnant.
Larry Gardner, chairman of the Election Commissioners Association of Mississippi, attributed some inflated voter rolls to commissioners who "are not doing their job."

Gardner said in some counties, personality conflicts have led to power struggles between the circuit clerk and election commissioners. The circuit clerk, the county's chief elections officer, is supposed to help election commissioners purge the voter rolls. Gardner said some clerks have blocked commissioners from using county computers.

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann's office compiled its own list of 24 counties with more registered voters than people of voting age. All are also on AP's list. Hosemann said his staff has been working with election commissioners, showing them, for example, how to check Health Department records so they can purge dead voters' names.

But because of Mississippi's history of trying to suppress minority voting decades ago, the U.S. Justice Department must clear any changes in election laws or procedures. Some commissioners say they're reluctant to purge names because they don't want to run afoul of the department.

In the Jackson suburb of Madison County earlier this year, election commissioner Sue Sautermeister put more than 10,000 names on a list of inactive voters, a step short of purging. After complaints from other county and state officials, Hosemann's office restored them.