Monday, July 30, 2012

ROUNDHOUSE ROUNDUP: The Myth of the Voting Dead

Yikes! I realized that I'm late in posting my last Sunday column -- I usually do that on Monday morning -- but I just realized that somehow my column from the previous Sunday never got posted either. I don't think it's obsolete yet, so here it is, better late than never.

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
 July 17, 2012

Secretary of State Dianna Duran is once again looking for noncitizens on the state’s voter rolls. Her office, as I reported last week, is requesting access to a Homeland Security database. But if this effort goes like the extensive search for illegal immigrants that Duran conducted last year, she’ll be six times more likely to find a dead person registered to vote than a live noncitizen.

Duran’s study last year found 641 dead people on the state’s voter rolls. Also uncovered were 104 noncitizens who registered to vote in New Mexico, though only 19 of those actually cast ballots in elections. (The Secretary of State’s Office didn’t know whether any of the dead voters had ballots cast for them.)

Jokes about the voting dead — or should we call them “The Silent Majority”? — have long been part of New Mexico’s political culture. It looks like the current County Clerk of Santa Fe County and her likely successor are tired of the joke.

Geraldine Salazar, running unopposed to be the next county clerk, last week sent out a lengthy statement on behalf of her boss, County Clerk Valerie Espinoza, trying to alleviate fears of deceased people clogging the ballot boxes.

Salazar said in every election, invariably some voter “will be signing the signature roster and say, ‘What is Aunt Tilly’s name doing in the roster? She died two years ago. Can she still vote?’ ” Espinoza, Salazar said, “wants to assure citizens that the deceased do not vote in the county.”

Salazar noted that during Espinoza’s two terms, “there has been only one documented occurrence where a voter tried (and failed) to get an absentee ballot for a deceased brother. The system and astute city and county staff members prevented voter fraud.”

But, Salazar said, this “still begs the question why do the deceased and ex-residents remain registered voters in Santa Fe County? The reason is that state law is scrupulous in protecting citizens’ right to vote.” It’s not enough for a relative or a friend to call up and say that a loved one has died or moved out of state, she said.

“Think of the mischief that could happen if staff members accepted anyone’s calling — sight unseen — to say that Aunt Tilly had died or John Doe had moved and should be taken off the voter list. Using robocalls, political parties and operatives could disenfranchise thousands of voters. To counteract fraud, state law insists on documentary evidence.”

One such documentation is a newspaper obituary. Salazar said County Clerk’s Office staff reads the local papers’ obit pages every day looking for voters who have shuffled off their mortal coil. “Staff members check birth dates, residency and then research them in the state’s electronic voter file,” she said. “If there is a match, the person’s electronic record is marked `deceased’ to deactivate it, and the record is removed from the system.”

I’m just nit-picking here, but obits aren’t always reliable. Back when I was a police reporter, I wrote extensively about the case of an Oklahoma woman’s skeleton found buried under a rosebush on Santa Fe’s east side. The suspect, the woman’s son, said that couldn’t be possible. His mother had died in Maryland, and there was an obituary in her hometown paper to prove it.

However, Maryland officials testified that there was no death certificate for the woman in that state. And I talked to folks at the Oklahoma newspaper that ran the obituary, and they admitted that they don’t normally verify obits that come in. (The suspect in the case was found not guilty of murder.)

OK, I’ll admit that’s an extreme example (and has nothing to do with voting. I don’t think the poor victim ever cast a ballot after she was buried under that rosebush.) The point is, while most obituary information comes straight from the funeral home, there can be exceptions.

If there’s not a published obituary, Salazar said, the county clerk wouldn’t know to remove the name unless the family brings in a death certificate.

This is all well and good, but as Viki Harrison of New Mexico Common Cause recently pointed out, only about half the registered voters bother to show up and vote. If the living aren’t interested, maybe we should open it up to the dead.

Contact Steve Terrell at Read his political blog at