KBIA archive: Dead voters haunt Missouri's voter registration rolls (2006)
In 2006, August Skamenca won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for his investigation into the state of Missouri's voter registration rolls. You can listen to his story above. He worked with the Columbia Missourian's Matt Wynn, who wrote the story below.
Original article from the Columbia Missourian, November 2, 2006:
Columbia native William Phillippe was drawn to the West Coast through military service and a steady job after he graduated from Hickman High School in 1938. He moved back to his hometown in 1988 and in 1992 married Rea Phillippe.
The two played in a folk-country band called Yours Truly a few times a month. William Phillippe strummed the guitar; his wife played keyboard.
“He was the best guitar picker and singer that ever was, I think,” Rea Phillippe said.
In August 2003, a blood clot caused William Phillippe to suddenly die.
But somehow, according to a state database created this year, William Phillippe managed to cast a vote in the 2004 presidential election.
“He couldn’t have,” Rea Phillippe said. “He couldn’t have voted.”
True enough. But the same mistake could happen again.
William Phillippe is one of 10,520 deceased citizens who remain registered to vote in Missouri, and one of 235 who — according to a state database created earlier this year — managed to cast a vote after death.
Dead people remain on the voter rolls of every county in Missouri. St. Louis County leads the state with 2,270 registered voters who are dead. Adair County has only one.
Some of those registered
to vote died long ago. One, William Bennett of Kansas City, died in March 1972.
In Phillippe’s case, his after-death “vote” was a clerical error.
When voters go to the polls, they sign on a line next to their name and a unique barcode. Election judges then use a laser to scan the bar codes of people who came to the polls, and the Missouri Secretary of State’s Office updates its voter database to reflect the vote of each citizen.
In 2004, Rea Phillippe saw her late husband’s name in the registry. She thought she was helping elections officials when she scribbled a note next to his name: “Deceased Aug. 3, 2003.”
In Cape Girardeau, where she lived until 1990, that note would have prompted an effort to verify her husband was dead, said Cape Girardeau County Clerk Rodney Miller.
“Absolutely, we would have looked into it,” he said.
Instead, Rea Phillippe’s note led a temporary worker in Boone County to scan Phillippe’s bar code, inaccurately creating a record that he had cast a ballot.
Temporary workers can’t be expected to do their jobs without making a few mistakes, Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren said. After all, sometimes voters sign on the wrong line, or in between lines, or make other marks that can cause errors.
“It’s like asking why anyone makes a typo,” Noren said. “That’s like saying we’re going to put out a paper without any errors. You can’t do it.”
Scanning mistakes by temporary workers were to blame in all six cases in 2004 in which dead people were listed as having cast a vote in Boone County, according to an analysis conducted by the Missourian.
Noren said she is able to verify the accuracy of any election in Boone County because she keeps paper copies of voter sign-in sheets “forever.”
State law, however, only requires county election officials to keep hard copies of sign-in sheets for 24 months. That means it might be impossible to trace the errors that led to 127 votes recorded by dead people before 2004.
The number of deceased who remain registered to vote worries Cole County Clerk Marvin Register, who fears people who want to commit voter fraud could exploit the situation.
“We can’t just let this go,” he said. “It’s something that has to be taken care of and we’re going to move to take care of this.”
At his request, the Missourian provided Register with its list of dead Cole County residents who remain registered. His office will remove their names as their deaths are verified.
“We will have them off there as soon as possible,” Register said. “They will not vote in this election.”
Boone County has 232 dead people on its list, but Noren said she’s working on removing them.
After a federal election, Noren sends a postcard to each registered voter to make sure they haven’t moved, died or otherwise become ineligible to vote. If the postcard is returned or the voter continues to participate in elections, the voter retains eligibility.
But even when there is evidence a person is deceased, federal law requires the name to stay on voter rolls through the next two federal elections.
Noren said she does not remove names from the statewide list until she is absolutely certain the person is incapable of voting. Obituaries, notices from relatives and other common ways to learn of a person’s death don’t necessarily result in removal from Boone County’s registration list. Once she can verify a person’s death through official methods, Noren said, their names are removed immediately.
In the 2000 elections, Noren said, Missouri had a problem with too many people being removed from the list, which made them unable to vote. She said the possibility of a few people casting votes in place of the dead is better than taking away the rights of legitimate voters because of “aggressive” removal policies.
“Making assumptions you shouldn’t make can cause hundreds of people not to be able to vote,” she said. “That’s government sponsored voter fraud to me.”
There is a system in place to remove dead voters regularly, said Stacie Temple, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Robin Carnahan. Every week, the Department of Health and Senior Services supplies a list of new deaths to every county clerk in the state. The clerks then purge any names from the list.
Temple said 127,000 dead people have been removed from the voter rolls since the statewide database was created early this year. She said the ultimate authority lies with county clerks.
“We work with them. We train them. We help them,” she said. “But at the end of the day, the responsibility for maintaining the voter lists falls on the local election authorities.”
That explanation is little comfort to Cole County resident Betty Schrimpf, whose late husband Robert Schrimpf remains registered 11 years after his death.
“This is their job to purge the databases,” she said. “Do it. What’s the problem? Why is he still on there?”
— KBIA/91.3 FM and KOMU TV reporter August Skamenca contributed to this report.