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Dead Voters? Probe Finds Errors In Records

By MARCEL DUFRESNE, Special to The Courant

April 20, 2008

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Jane M. Drury, homemaker, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, spent most of her life in Staten Island, N.Y, but moved to Stonington in 1992 to live with her daughter. That October, she registered to vote there.

State records show Drury never actually voted in Stonington before her death in 2000 in a Groton nursing home at age 97. But the same records say she did vote in Stonington once since then — in a 2007 budget referendum.

That recorded vote, seven years after her death, puts Drury on a list of more than 300 people across Connecticut who appear to have voted from the grave in elections dating to 1994, a two-month investigation of voting records by journalism students at the University of Connecticut has found.

The mysterious voters were identified by matching a statewide database of 2 million registered voters and their voting histories with two separate computer lists of dead people maintained by the state Department of Public Health and the federal Social Security Administration.

Following up on the matches, UConn students examined the records of nearly 100 of the suspect voters at 10 town and city halls among those with the most cases. Guilford led the state with 39, followed by West Hartford (17), Enfield (15), Stonington (13) and Norwalk (11).

Some people appeared to have voted frequently after death, the research found. In Hebron, for example, records show one man voted 17 times after he died in 1992.

The investigation also identified more than 8,500 people listed as dead who are still registered to vote in Connecticut, most long after their deaths. In Hamden, one woman remained a registered voter although she died in 1979.

Although the investigation found no evidence of deliberate fraud, it uncovered numerous errors in voting and registration records kept by local registrars, and highlights weaknesses in a state voter database established in the mid-1990s, ostensibly to prevent fraud and duplicate voting.

State elections officials and others concede that the findings reveal flaws in the voting system and expose its vulnerability to potential abuse.

"I understood [dead voters] as a myth," said Joan M. Andrews, enforcement director for the State Elections Enforcement Commission, which investigates elections and campaign finance irregularities. "People make jokes about dead people voting but we never thought things like that could actually happen."

Andrews said she plans to bring the UConn findings to the full commission to determine whether further investigation is warranted.

Trouble In Town Hall

Michael Kozik, managing attorney for the secretary of the state's office, which is responsible for the state database, said he was most troubled by the thousands of dead people still registered to vote. "Clearly this is an issue that we need to look at," he said.

All but nine of Connecticut's 169 municipalities listed dead people on active voter rolls. At least 100 cases were identified in each of 28 cities and towns. In New Haven alone, 370 dead people were still registered; in Enfield there were 321; in West Haven, 310; in Hartford, 298; and in Bridgeport, 293.

The UConn investigation also found instances of people who were not registered yet were able to vote — under a dead person's name — along with frequent discrepancies between the state data and paper voting records at local town halls.

The potential for fraud is most serious in municipal elections, when officials are not required to check photo identification at the polls and voters need only sign a statement attesting to their identity.

The UConn findings highlight two nagging problems facing officials trying to keep accurate voting records. First is the informal and antiquated ways many local registrars remove dead people from voter rolls. Second is the potential for clerical errors when registrars transfer information from paper voting lists to the state database, especially in the rush to update by the two-day, post-election deadline.

Many of those interviewed blame a locally based election system that has not changed much in decades. In many towns, elections and voter registration are run by part-time registrars who are paid little, have limited resources, and may resist the growing role of computers in elections.

The UConn findings are disturbing but not surprising, said Andy Sauer, executive director of Connecticut Common Cause, a public-interest group that lobbies for election reform. He blamed many of the system's problems on politically appointed local registrars using outdated methods of running elections and keeping records. Each town has two registrars, one Democrat and one Republican.

"You need to take the election administration out of the hands of a politician and into the hands of a state administration," he said, a solution many in the system might consider unrealistic.

Figuring Out Who Died

Jane Drury's vote in a May 2007 Stonington referendum, first detected in the state data, was later confirmed on a paper check-off list at the town hall showing her name crossed off with a straight line. By all official records, Drury voted seven years after she had died.

"Somebody goofed, obviously," said Jane Gumpel, Drury's daughter. "I don't know how that could happen."

Louise Brown, a Stonington registrar of voters, was one of several municipal registrars who initially expressed skepticism when informed that dead people appeared to be voting in their town. Brown was shown a list of 13 dead people who state records indicated had voted a total of 38 times in Stonington since 2001. A quick check of several names confirmed the problems, and Brown began tracking down several suspicious cases. Registrars in other towns responded similarly.

Around the state, UConn students identified a variety of explanations for why people seemed to be voting after death. The most common was clerical errors made while checking off voters' names at the polls or entering votes into the state database.

In other cases, someone with the same name, sometimes a relative who was not registered, actually cast the vote. Other times, a living person might have been mistakenly taken off the rolls when someone with the same name died. Votes in both scenarios were erroneously credited to a dead person.

Connecticut is one of many states with no formal system for notifying registrars when someone dies. Death certificates are sent to the city or town where the death occurs, not necessarily where people lived, even if they lived in the same town all their lives. When someone dies in a hospital or nursing home in another town or an adjacent state, the death certificate may never come to the registrars' attention.

Registrars tend to rely on newspaper obituaries, relatives, or word of mouth to learn of someone's death, many officials said.

Even then, registrars are advised to be extremely cautious about purging dead people from voter rolls, said George Cody, president of the Registrar of Voters Association of Connecticut and New Canaan's Democratic registrar. They must see documentary proof, such as the death certificate or a published obituary, before removing someone's name.

A Confusion Of Names

The possibility that two or more people in the same town have the same name makes registrars especially cautious about removing a voter, Cody said.

Identical names seem to explain the case of George E. Gagnon, a retired auto body repairman who, records indicate, voted seven times in East Hartford after his death on June 15, 1991, with all of the votes coming after 2001. Gagnon, born in 1918, had moved to neighboring Manchester in 1952, long before he died.

It turns out that a different George E. Gagnon, a retired truck driver born in 1921, is very much alive, living and voting regularly in East Hartford.

"A lot of dead people vote in this state," the living Gagnon joked after finding out a different George Gagnon had been credited with his votes. "I'm still alive and if somebody makes a mistake, that's not my fault."

The explanation: Someone at the East Hartford registrars office entered the living Gagnon into the state database using the birth date on the other Gagnon's registration card, even though the latter had left town 50 years earlier. As a result, the living Gagnon was identified as dead in the computer match and the dead Gagnon appeared to have cast multiple votes in East Hartford.

While registrars are reluctant to cancel a voter's registration without physical proof of death, they are under no obligation to seek out such proof, even when it might be filed elsewhere in their own town hall. UConn students found numerous cases in which death and burial certificates on file in one town office did not find their way to registrars in the same building.

State records show that Carmella Vella, an Italian immigrant who settled in Enfield in 1913, voted there in 2005 and 2006. But Vella died across the state border in a Springfield hospital in 1998. The votes, it turned out, stem from clerical errors.

Neighboring towns are supposed to forward death certificates to a dead person's hometown, but that doesn't always happen, said Enfield's recently retired Republican registrar, Vaughan Vanderscoff.

But proof of Vella's death — a burial certificate for an Enfield cemetery — is on file in the town clerk's office down the hall from the registrar.

Vella's daughter-in-law, Barbara Vella, said she doesn't understand why her husband's mother was still registered.

"I've told them multiple times to take her off the list," Vella said. "She is certainly deceased."

Kozik, of the secretary of the state's office, concedes: "There should be a better system of getting the death information to the registrars in a timely fashion. But I'm not exactly sure how we would do that."

How Mistakes Are Made

In theory, at least, there is a simple way to supply registrars with accurate death information. The state Office of Vital Records maintains a database of death certificates in Connecticut — called the "consolidated master death file" — dating to 1949. It is the same database used by UConn students to identify votes attributed to dead people.

A 2005 report to Congress by the Government Accountability Office recommended that states share computerized death certificate data with towns to accurately purge dead people from voter rolls. Georgia began doing so in 2003, after a newspaper investigation revealed some 15,000 dead people still registered in that state.

But Kozik, who was not familiar with the GAO recommendation, cautioned against using computer matching alone to remove voters' names.

"I would always be reluctant to have computers automatically disenfranchising people to vote," Kozik said. "Before someone is actually taken off the list I would want some kind of human intervention and judgment involved."

Many votes credited to dead people appeared to result from clerical error, UConn students found.

In Southington, the state data show that 10 dead people voted, most in November 2000. But a check of paper records showed none actually had voted.

"The errors had to occur when we were typing the names of people who voted into the computer," said Carol Sheffs, deputy registrar in Southington. "Everyone is in a rush to see who voted. You do it fast and you don't have time to check over your work. That's how mistakes are made."

Local officials are well aware of the system's weaknesses, said Carole Young-Kleinfeld, a deputy registrar in Wilton and a spokeswoman for the Connecticut League of Women Voters. "The possibility of human error at election time is very real. Checkers at the polls mistakenly cross off sons instead of fathers, and vice versa, or cross off neighbors who have similar names."

Kozik downplayed the significance of voter history errors. Those records are kept mostly as a convenience to political parties, which use the information to target frequent voters, he said.

But Andrews, of the elections enforcement commission, said a state record that shows who voted and who did not should be accurate. Especially troubling, she said, are those dead people whose votes are confirmed by check-off lists, which can only result from multiple errors in the process.

She described most problems as "systematic" and blamed them on "a lack of uniformity" at the local level. Municipalities are supposed to follow the same state-mandated procedures, she said, "but when you go out to a town, you find that they aren't."

Forced To Go Online

UConn students found 10 cases in which an unregistered person was able to vote under a dead person's name. In most cases, the person was a son or daughter with the same first, last and middle name, and sometimes even the same address, but not the same date of birth.

One such case involved Donald R. Tichy Jr., a 1981 graduate of the University of Hartford, who died of cancer in 1992 at the age of 33. Votes attributed to Tichy in 2005 and 2006 were actually cast by his father, Donald R. Tichy Sr. The only registration card under the name of Donald Tichy lists the son's identification information, plus the suffix "Jr." added, in pencil, after the name.

"I've been voting illegally, is what you're telling me," a surprised Tichy Sr. said. He vowed to straighten out the matter.

The secretary of the state's office created the voter database in the mid-1990s to help detect fraud and duplicate registrations, years ahead of the 2002 federal Help America Vote Act that required every state to keep such a database.

Participation by local registrars was voluntary at first — some towns resisted the move to computerization — but the state legislature required every town to go online by September 2003.

Calling the database "a work in progress," Andrews noted that some towns had to be forced to comply. In Norwalk, two registrars were fined $1,500 each for failing to complete their portion of the registry on time and for not using it in the November 2004 election.

State officials say they have known of problems with the database since 2005, when the elections enforcement commission tested the system, looking for people who might have voted twice in the 2004 national election, Andrews said.

The agency initially was surprised to find more than 400 people who apparently voted more than once. But after spending more than a year investigating each case, the agency found no evidence of duplicate voting.

"One by one, there turned out to be some sort of explanation for them." Andrews said. The investigation found many of the same causes identified in the UConn investigation.

Some officials suggest that better training for registrars would improve the system. The secretary of the state's office and the registrars association have been conducting "a very intensive training program" for registrars for nearly two years, especially those newly elected, said Cody, the registrars association president.

But he conceded that some registrars, especially those in smaller towns, whom he described as "woefully underpaid and understaffed," may be slow to adapt.

"We can lead them to water," Cody said, "but we can't make them drink."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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