Analysis finds disparities in county voter rolls

Wednesday, October 29, 2008 | 1:45 p.m. CDT; updated 2:45 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 29, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — More than a dozen Missouri counties have more registered voters on their rolls than they do voting age adults, a scenario that triggered a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit following the last presidential election.

Topping that list is St. Louis County — Missouri's most heavily populated area and a pivotal battleground in next week's presidential election between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama.

A statistical analysis by The Associated Press compared county voter rolls with U.S. Census Bureau estimates for the number of adults age 18 and older in each county. Fourteen of the state's 114 counties had more registered voters than voting-age adults. Several others had registration rolls almost equal to their adult populations.

Having more registered voters than voting-age residents raises the question of whether some people could vote twice in different jurisdictions.

State and local election authorities, however, say they are not concerned about the potential for fraud as the result of the inflated rolls. They say voter rolls appear unusually high because they include thousands of "inactive voters" — generally, people who have moved but, under federal law, cannot yet be deleted from the rolls.

"Missourians should have confidence in their election system," said Laura Egerdal, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Robin Carnahan.

"Local election authorities across the state have taken great care in maintaining the rolls and ensuring any voter added to the rolls is eligible to vote, and that any person who is removed from the rolls is done so under the guidelines of federal law," she said.

Based on a similar comparison of census and voter rolls, the AP first reported in October 2004 that there were more registered voters than eligible adults in 36 of Missouri's 114 counties, as well as in the stand-alone city of St. Louis.

The next year, the U.S Justice Department sued, claiming Missouri election officials had failed to keep voter rolls up to date. That lawsuit remains pending in U.S. District Court.

Since then, Missouri has instituted a new statewide database that allows election officials to better update the registration rolls when a voter moves within the state. But that system depends on the voter notifying election officials of the new address, and voters who move out of state are not automatically removed from the rolls.

Because of federal law, it can take years to remove registered voters who move.

Federal law requires local election authorities to periodically mail address verification cards to registered voters. If they are returned as undeliverable, then election officials mail a second notification that can be forwarded to a new address.

Those voters then are placed on an "inactive" list. They can be removed from the rolls only if election officials still don't hear from them and they fail to vote in the next two general elections. That means someone who moved from Missouri in 2005 might not be removed from the voter rolls until after the Nov. 4 election.

In St. Louis County, for example, there are 796,979 registered voters, of which 715,195 are considered active voters and the rest inactive. The estimated voting-age population is 762,657.

But because of the large number of people moving into and out of the county, it makes more sense to compare population estimates to the active voters, said Joseph Goeke, a St. Louis County election director.

Asked if he had any concern about the inflated rolls, Goeke replied: "Not in the least."

In Boone County, home of MU, there are 121,319 registered voters — slightly more than the estimated voting-age population of 118,310. But just 101,899 of those registered voters are considered active.

Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren said the federal requirement to delay the deletion of inactive voters means her rolls include people who graduated from college years ago, took jobs elsewhere and have no likelihood of actually voting in Boone County.

"In college towns, because of this federal law, you end up with more registered voters than you've got qualified voters," she said, "and it just gives people the impression there is something wrong, when in fact every one of those records are flagged — they don't live here any more."

As was the case in 2004, rural Reynolds County in southeast Missouri has the highest percentage variance. It has 6,223 registered voters listed for the Nov. 4 elections — an amount that is about 122 percent of its estimated voting-age population of 5,079.

Reynolds County Clerk Mike Harper, who remains frustrated about the federal investigation following the 2004 election, said part of the problem is the population estimate. Harper said the county has 5,000 homes, which he said suggests that the Census Bureau's figures are too low.

Harper said his office is continually updating its voter rolls. "I feel we do very honest work here," he said.


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