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Dead voters on rolls, other glitches found in 6 key states

By Geoff Dougherty, Tribune staff reporter. Tribune staff reporter Sarah Frank contributed to this report from Washington
Published December 4, 2004   Chicago Tribune

Michel Pillet died in 2002, but his name lives on at the University of New Mexico. He created the school's graduate architecture program and directed it for years.

Pillet's name lives on in another way too. He's still listed as a registered voter in New Mexico, even though election officials are required to purge the names of deceased voters.

A Tribune analysis of voter records suggests that more than 5,000 dead people remained on the rolls on Election Day in New Mexico. The presidential election there was decided by 6,000 votes.

And New Mexico is not alone. The Tribune's review of voter data there and in five other key statesFlorida, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan and Minnesotafound widespread flaws in the integrity of voter rolls.

More than 181,000 dead people were listed on the rolls in the six swing states, despite efforts to clean up the country's voting system after the 2000 election.

Thousands more voters were registered to vote in two places, which could have allowed them to cast more than one ballot.

Further, more than 90,000 voters in Ohio cast ballots without a valid presidential choice. Either they decided not to choose a candidate, the machine failed to register their choice, or they mistakenly voted for more than one candidate.

And the FBI is investigating allegations that Republicans in Florida mounted a large-scale campaign to tamper with ballots.

Those developments come after an election that most observers agree was a vast improvement over the 2000 vote.

Data on which voters cast ballots in the November election are not available in some key states as they await county compilations. So it's unclear whether any people registered in two places voted more than once. Likewise, it's impossible to tell whether ballots were cast in the names of the deceased voters on the rolls.

But the number of voters who should have been removed from the rolls and were not is considered cause for concern, especially in states where the presidential election was decided by just a few thousand votes.

"The problem of bloated registration rolls is a serious problem," said Dan Seligson, editor of electionline.org, a voting reform clearinghouse.

Legislation passed after the 2000 election was designed to fix some of those problems by requiring states to maintain better registration data. But those requirements take effect in 2006.

New Mexico health officials each month supply a list of recently deceased residents that Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron uses to scrub the voter rolls. But Pillet died in France and apparently never received a New Mexico death certificate, she said.

`Fell through the cracks'

"He fell through the cracks," said Vigil-Giron.

Francis Walsh, a former assembly worker at Chicago's American Can Co., retired and moved to Iowa. He died there in June 2002, but remains a registered voter in Des Moines.

The Tribune's analysis suggests 4,900 other Iowa voters have died but remain on the rolls.

Bush won Iowa by 10,000 votes.

Phyllis Peters, spokeswoman for the Iowa secretary of state's office, said workers there anticipated that many deceased Iowans would appear on the rolls.

Peters said her agency conducts a monthly purge of voters whose death certificates have been filed with the state vital statistics agency. But of course some people die elsewhere, complicating the process.

Data-entry errors can create problems too. On Walsh's voter information, he is listed as a female. But his death certificate said he was male, so computers did not remove him from the voter rolls, Peters said.

Despite the number of questionable registrations and Bush's thin margin of victory, Peters said she is confident in the election's outcome. That's due mostly to the 10,000 local election workers looking for suspicious voters, she said.

"We really believe there's a lot of integrity at the local precinct level," she said.

Among the states, Florida led the way with 64,889 registered voters who were also listed in a database of Social Security Administration death claims, the Tribune analysis found.

Next was Michigan, with 50,051.

The problem of duplicate voter registrations spurred Glenda Hood, Florida's secretary of state and top election official, to request help from the FBI before the election in weeding out double-voters.

"We believe that immediate and decisive action on the federal level is necessary to send a strong message that this type of illegal behavior and manipulation of the electoral franchise will not be tolerated," said Hood's letter, written Aug. 26.

William Fisher moved from Florida to Ohio and registered to vote. He was surprised to learn that he could have cast a second ballot in Florida.

"I'm retired now, and out of Florida, so I shouldn't be listed as a Florida voter anymore," he said.

In Ohio, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson is demanding a review of the election, saying too many questions have been raised to let Bush's win stand without further examination.

"We can live with winning and losing. We cannot live with fraud and stealing," Jackson said Sunday at Mt. Hermon Baptist Church in Columbus, Ohio.

Voting complaints in Ohio have focused on the use of antiquated punch-card voting machinesthe same type of machines that led to thousands of hanging chads in Florida four years ago.

Ohio recount sought

Meanwhile, third-party candidates, joined by Sen. John Kerry's campaign organization, have requested a recount in Ohio, which would begin after the election results are certified. That must happen by Monday.

A hearing on the recount request was held in federal court in Columbus on Friday.

County-by-county results provided to The Associated Press on Friday indicated Bush's margin of victory in Ohio will be about 119,000 votes, smaller than the unofficial margin of 136,000, mainly because of the addition of provisional ballots.

Ohio's so-called spoilage rate, ballots cast without a discernable vote for president, was lower than Florida's in the 2000 election. But the number of discarded ballots92,000represents a significant number, given that Bush's margin of victory was about 119,000 .

The state Democratic Party is watching the potential recount carefully, said spokesman Dan Trevas.

"It could be that we lost it," he said. "But if there's a little more to it, we've got to check it out. Let's just make sure everything's aboveboard."

In Florida, new touch-screen voting machines eliminated overvotes and chads. But some allege that ATM-like technology has created other problems.

University of California, Berkeley, professor Michael Hout compared voting patterns in the Florida counties that used the new machines with those that relied on ballots similar to the multiple-choice forms on standardized tests.

He found differences in those patterns that led him to conclude that computer problems with the new machines had given an edge to Bush. He suggested software glitches could have left some Kerry votes uncounted, or assigned them mistakenly to Bush.

"Statistically what we have is a smoke alarm that's beeping," said Hout. "It's up to the local people in Florida to figure out what to do about it."

Also in Florida, Democratic congressional candidate Jeff Fisher, who was defeated Nov. 2, said he had seen e-mails outlining a Republican plot to steal the presidential election. The plot, he said, involved election workers who created bogus voter registrations. The workers then rigged computers to show those ghost voters had cast ballots for Bush.

The FBI confirmed that Fisher had filed a complaint and that agents were investigating.

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