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Thursday, October 10, 2013
A few years ago, my sister received a jury duty notice addressed to the home of our parents. Funny thing was that she had been married and lived out of state for more than a decade before receiving the summons. I called the appropriate office to report this and was advised to also call the local registrar — she’d probably been picked because she was still on the voter rolls despite voting for years in another state.
Only a few weeks ago, I opened a letter by mistake that was addressed to a previous resident of my house — at least two owners ago, in fact. He was being removed from the voter roll because, it had been discovered, he was simultaneously registered in another state. Of course, he never saw the letter, since I had no way to forward it to wherever he is.
These episodes illustrate some of the complexity of maintaining accurate voter rolls in a highly mobile society. It’s a difficult thing to do, and doing it perfectly is probably beyond the realm of possibility. Still, I think anyone will agree that we must do the very best we can to be sure every vote counts and every vote is legitimate.
And I think we can all agree that we should continually look for ways to improve the accuracy of voter lists, eliminating names of people who have moved, died or become ineligible for other reasons.
Last year, Virginia joined about half the other states in an effort to share and compare voter databases. The intention was to identify duplications, as would seem to be the case in the examples I cite above. Names, Social Security numbers and birthdates were compared to generate a list of thousands of Virginia voters seemingly registered in more than one state.
That in itself, of course, does not suggest that these people tried to vote in more than one state, or that anyone tried to vote in the name of a former resident. But as long as these names remain on the wrong roll, the possibility of fraud exists.
The State Board of Elections this summer instructed local registrars to purge their rolls of ineligible voters based on the cross-check findings. Then last week, the state Democrat Party sued the Board of Elections, the governor and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (GOP candidate for governor) to halt the purges. The lawsuit claims that too many names of legitimately registered voters are inappropriately on the purge list. It also suggests that the whole thing is a politically motivated effort to suppress the vote of political opponents.
Of course, to assert something in a lawsuit does not make it so. Mechanisms exist to correct any errors and allow a legitimately registered voter to vote. Let’s take the previous owner of my house mentioned above. For the sake of argument, let’s say he’s been secretly living in my basement all these years and now emerges ready to vote. If in fact he was inappropriately purged, he will be able to cast a provisional ballot until the confusion can be sorted out.
Meanwhile, my local registrar has done due diligence in handling the matter, it seems to me. Here was a former resident who, presumably through no fault of his own, was registered in two states. Now he is not.
I read of another case of a lady, used as an example in the lawsuit, who got a similar purge notice inappropriately. She’d lived out-of-state but had moved back and had re-registered. Her records were apparently confused in her previous state. Sounds bad. But she went to the registrar and her name was reinstated on the proper roll. Rather than a textbook case of voter suppression, it sounds like this is how the system should have worked. Evidence appeared that suggested that she was not a valid voter. The evidence proved incorrect, but that could not be known until it was scrutinized. It was straightened out in short order.
The purge list was generated by two very fallible entities: humans and computers. Inevitably, there are errors, especially among such mobile constituencies as college students and military personnel. But thousands of names seem to be on Virginia rolls when they shouldn’t be. It would be a greater mistake to leave them there.
Every Virginian who meets the qualifications and goes through the registration process deserves the right to vote. And he deserves the right not to have his vote canceled out by someone voting inappropriately.
Long is a Roanoke Times columnist and director of the Salem Museum.
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