Thursday, July 24, 2014

I've Heard All The Chicago Jokes Already

Matt Schultz has death on his mind.

Not the death of his political career at a district convention, where he was the first serious candidate eliminated. No, the lame duck Secretary of State...

I like the way that rolls out. I'll say it again. The lame duck Secretary of State...

The lame duck Secretary of State is pursuing his voter fraud crusade beyond the grave.

In this week's episode of The Voting Dead Schultz, looking for one last shot of publicity, takes what's actually a positive step and gets his usual partisan spin on it. Original release:
The Iowa Secretary of State’s office provided county auditors information from the Social Security Death Index regarding possible deceased voters.

"It’s important that our voter lists are accurate and this routine check of information in the Social Security Death Index will help county auditors determine which voters are deceased and should no longer be on the voting rolls," Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz said.

An example letter sent to county auditors can be found here. Prior to removing any names from the voting rolls, county auditors will analyze the information to determine whether the deceased individuals are matches to voters currently registered to vote. A total of 1234 individuals were initially matched as currently being on Iowa’s voting lists and listed in the Social Security Death Index. County auditors also previously reviewed Social Security Death Index information to improve the voter lists in 2012. 
That last sentence reveals that this is a relatively routine thing. But it doesn't appear to have been accompanied by a press release in 2012. And it didn't produce fear mongering headlines like

Iowa county’s voter rolls filled with deceased residents

Worked like a charm. Routine election administration gets exaggerated into fuel for the base and motivation for the Republican "voter integrity" efforts we're sure to see this fall.

So, how do those of us who work on the official end of things kill off dead voters?

I've long been obsessed with getting dead people off the rolls, and it dates back to my early volunteer days. We had a brand new volunteer who started making calls, and on about call three she got the widow on the phone and asked for a guy who had just died. Tears on both ends of the line, the volunteer had to leave for the night... and never came back. So when I got a job a few years later working with elections, one of my goals was getting the rolls as clean as possible ESPECIALLY when death is the issue.

First thing to remember about anything to do with voter file administration: the most important thing is the MAIL. Prior to Motor Voter - passed in 1993, effective in 1995 - Iowa had a simple system. Four years without voting or re-registering and you're out. The Help America Vote (sic) Act of 2002 (HAVA) made some other changes but Motor Voter still plays the bigger role.

Since Motor Voter, everything is designed to make it HARDER to remove voters from the rolls. No one can be canceled just for not voting. All we can do is send reminder cards once every four years, process names from the postal National Change Of Address (NCOA) database, or accept notices from other election offices that someone has moved away.

And of course death. The Iowa Department of Public Health keeps data on deaths in the state. They used to send out lists but now there's a lookup. Those still have to get processed locally. There's some lag time so what we do is start every morning with the obituaries. Seems morbid, but it's very effective. Johnson County got good marks in Schultz's press release; we only have 15 voters that he thinks are dead.

So how do people get missed? Not everyone has a published obituary. And not everyone who lives here, dies here. Out of state deaths are especially tough to track.

The Social Security Administration keeps a short leash on its data. The Death Index is relatively public, but not easy to query en masse. If you're looking up your grandma, sure, and occasionally useful if you're looking up a specific voter who you've been told is dead (though in recent years, more records have driver's license numbers and very few have full SSNs). But harder to compare to a voter file.

HAVA has an underlying assumption that voter registration is handled at the state level, and requires all states to have a state level database. And Iowa does have that database. But Iowa law says voter registration is handled at the county level.

So what happens with big-level data dumps like the death index or cross-state matches is: the secretary of state gets it, then passes data on to counties for processing. Again, routine with no press release required.

Frankly, there are bigger list maintenance problems than dead people. Death is clear cut and relatively straightforward. We get official notice, we take them off. The bigger end of life problem is long-term cognitive decline.

In the pre-Motor Voter era, elderly dementia got addressed through the four years and out process. Now, as long as grandma keeps getting mail, she stays on the rolls, which often leads to frustrating conversations with care providers. By the time the adult children are asking how to get grandma off the rolls, she's beyond the point where she can sign her name to a simple form asking to be removed, and in Iowa power of attorney is specifically excluded from elections and voting issues.

And the other, bigger problem: what else can a lame duck, soon to be on the job market Schultz do to our election process in a year when the razor-close Ernst-Braley race could determine control of the whole Senate? All the more reason to pay attention to what looks to be the marquee downballot state race, Brad Anderson vs. Paul Pate...

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