Kentucky Grapples with Confusion on Voter Lists
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Before you go to vote next month, you might want to check that you're actually registered. For the first time, states are required to have centralized voter registration lists. That's to help them update their records and weed out duplicate registrations. But voting rights advocates warn that some legitimate voters could find themselves mistakenly purged from the rolls or never registered at all.
NPR's Pam Fessler has more.
PAM FESSLER: Here at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, senior Shawn Riley sees fellow students as potential voters. He's helped to organize several registration drives on campuses here and at one of them, he decided to update his own information.
Mr. SHAWN RILEY: I knew that I had been registered to vote in South Carolina, so I was like okay, I need to register here in Kentucky sometime. Well, I was talking to the county clerk who was there. I said I need to register. And she registered me and checked my form, made sure everything was legitimate, and it was.
FESSLER: Or so he thought. Until he went to get an absentee ballot for the May primary.
Mr. RILEY: They said I was not registered to vote. And I said well, you know, do you guys know this lady who's in the county clerk's office? And I said her name, and they said, yeah, we know her. And I said well, I registered with her. And they said okay. Well, they investigated. They found my card, and they said well, you've been purged.
FESSLER: He wasn't exactly sure what that meant, to be purged. But he knew it couldn't be good. In fact, Riley was one of at least several hundred Kentucky voters mistakenly removed from the rolls as part of a state effort to eliminate duplicate registrations.
Mr. TREY GRAYSON (Secretary of State, Kentucky): We want to have the cleanest rolls possible. That's an obligation for us.
FESSLER: Trey Grayson is Kentucky's secretary of state.
Mr. GRAYSON: There's administrative reasons for that and there's also voter fraud reasons for that. Every name of somebody that shouldn't be on that list is a potential person that can be voted and that can disenfranchise somebody else whose vote is offset by an illegal vote.
FESSLER: So earlier this year, Grayson had the state board of elections compare its registration list against those of South Carolina and Tennessee. It found that more than 8000 Kentucky voters had more recently registered in one of the other states, so those voters were purged from Kentucky's rolls. The problem is it was done shortly before the primary. Voters weren't notified and some had since moved back to Kentucky.
Mr. GRAYSON: And that was a mistake on our parts. And until you actually go out and do these things, you don't learn these kinds of lessons.
FESSLER: Grayson says anyone who showed up to vote was allowed to do so with proper ID, but this month, a state judge said that wasn't enough. He ordered all 8,000 voters back on Kentucky's lists so they would have more time to prove their eligibility.
The decision was the result of a suit brought against Grayson, a Republican, by the state's Democratic attorney general, Greg Stumbo. Stumbo's office, somewhat appropriately, is at the complete opposite end of the capitol from Grayson's. Their differences over how to clean up registration rolls without hurting legitimate voters reflect a similar partisan divide around the country.
Mr. GREG STUMBO (Attorney General, Kentucky): We have to remember there's not been one documented case where a voter who may have been registered in two different states tried to vote in both of those states. So I think caution is the better course. My view is that we should encourage voters.
FESSLER: By making it as easy as possible. Stumbo says he's also concerned about the removal of another 30,000 people last year from the state's active voter lists. Grayson's office says that was done in response to federal laws requiring states to maintain accurate rolls. Justin Leavitt of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU's law schools says it's hard to keep track of everything that's happening as states try to pull together their voter databases in the weeks before an election.
Mr. JUSTIN LEAVITT (New York University): They are compilations of all of the registered voters in the state and not surprisingly, they bring some problems with them.
FESSLER: Transposed numbers, slightly altered names, mistaken entries. Leavitt says that not only makes it hard for states to compare lists, but it's also caused problems with new voter registrations, which are now required to include a driver's license or other identifying number.
Mr. LEAVITT: For example, under Washington State law, an individual's registration information had to match up to either the motor vehicle record or Social Security records.
FESSLER: Otherwise, the application was rejected. The Brennan Center and other groups sued and in August, a federal judge ruled in their favor. But other states are still grappling with how to handle such mismatches, and officials say voters should probably check the status of their registrations before they head to the polls on election day.
Ms. DEB MARKOWITZ (Secretary of State, Vermont): This Web site's designed as a one-stop shop. You can go to canivote.org, and it'll take you to a portal that will take you to your state.
FESSLER: Deb Markowitz is Vermont's secretary of state and president of the National Association of Secretaries of State. She's showing off the organization's new Web site, which she says can answer some of the most important voter questions.
Ms. MARKOWITZ: Am I registered? If I'm not registered, how do I get registered? What are the requirements on election day? You know, do I have to bring ID? What will be asked of me? And where do I go? Where's my polling place?
FESSLER: I ask her for a demonstration.
We could do me, if you'd like. Which do you want to do?
Ms. MARKOWITZ: Do you. So what's your state?
FESSLER: Okay, so I live in Maryland.
Ms. MARKOWITZ: In Maryland - scroll down - finding Maryland, and there you go in Maryland.
FESSLER: We click on the state box, enter my name, address and date of birth.
Ms. MARKOWITZ: And so it says find voter registration information. We'll hit that key and see what happens. There you are. You vote at the Clara Barton Community Center.
FESSLER: Not all states have this information online, but if they don't, the Web site directs the user to the right phone number to call. It's also obvious from the site why states are having so much trouble. I asked Markowitz to check my son's records. He's registered to vote several times, as he moved from home to college to a new job. First we check Maryland, where he hasn't lived for years, and there he is still on the rolls.
Ms. MARKOWITZ: We can see him here, and where else shall we try?
FESSLER: Okay, let's try Michigan.
Ms. MARKOWITZ: Okay, let's see if he's in Michigan.
FESSLER: We enter my son's old college address.
Ms. MARKOWITZ: And there he is, and there's even a map to where he needs to go. So he needs to get off one of these checklists, but I understand there's even a third.
FESSLER: In fact, he's just registered in his new home, California. Markowitz says in theory, California should inform Michigan about the change and Michigan should've informed Maryland. But that doesn't always happen. The new statewide databases are supposed to help fix that, but she says for now, voters should be prepared for the possibility of confusion.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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