Dead voters purged from OC voter rolls

Orange County registrar uses commercial databases that San Diego resists

By Joel Hoffmann10:39 A.M.NOV. 25, 2014

While elections officials in many counties are waiting for a long-delayed statewide database to help them remove deceased and duplicate citizens from the voting rolls, the registrar in Orange County has found a work-around.

Neal Kelley, the Orange County registrar, told U-T Watchdog he has been improving the accuracy of his voter rolls by supplementing official data with records he purchases from Experian, a credit-scoring company, and Lorton Data, a business intelligence firm.

“When we first scrubbed our rolls two years ago, we immediately found 1,100 people on the rolls for 10 years after they passed away, and were able to confirm and eliminate the records,” Kelley said. “We have also been able to cancel almost 45,000 people who left the state who we wouldn’t have otherwise caught.”

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Many other registrars across the state, including Michael Vu in San Diego, are taking a more cautious approach to avoid mistakes that might disenfranchise eligible voters. They are waiting on a statewide database, required under federal law, that is already 12 years late and isn’t scheduled to launch until 2016.

As a result, voters rolls end up still carrying the names of voters who have died or registered in other counties or states.

Having those people remain on voter rolls leaves the door open to others casting illegal ballots in their names.

A U-T Watchdog review earlier this year found 26 ballots cast in the names of 10 dead San Diego County citizens. In one case, 14 ballots were cast over 14 years in the name of one deceased voter. The review was not comprehensive, but it did reveal problems with the system, so there may be more.

State law allows county registrars to cancel a registration if an inactive voter doesn’t return an address verification request and doesn’t vote for two consecutive federal general elections after that.


In Orange County, officials also look for people to remove by running checks on the commercial databases. It has done so twice — once in 2013 and once this year — at a total cost of $30,000.

Kelley said the investment has enabled him to identify voters who may need to be removed from the rolls, although he still confirms his actions with official records.

“Each time, we created the universe of data by selecting voters who have not had a history of voting in the last four years,” he said. “The first batch of data included nearly 250,000 records and the second was smaller at about 180,000 records.”

Keeping voter rolls free of dead voters and duplicate registrations is a tricky task for county registrars.

Registrars can put voters on inactive status if they don’t vote for a while — Welty’s registration is now inactive — but they have to be careful not to remove voters who only appear to be dead or duplicate.

Removing legitimate voters in error could trigger a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice or civil rights groups, and that’s why many registrars only remove voters if they receive an official death certificate, change of address form or request from the voter to be removed.


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Vu, San Diego County’s registrar, said he was aware of Orange County’s approach to voter roll maintenance, but he said he had concerns about using outside data because it could still be flawed or out of date.

Vu said his office would still have to precisely match those records with what is on file for voters, and would only remove registration records when he’s confident that doing so would comply with federal law.

“I would hate to remove a voter and not count a vote based on bad information,” he said. “I’m not going to close the door on it, but we have to walk very carefully.”

John Gardner, an assistant registrar of voters in Solano County, told U-T Watchdog that his county’s experience with outside data did not turn out well. In 2011, Solano used records from Lorton Data to remove dead voters from the rolls, but abruptly stopped after the registrar’s office learned that many of the voters were still alive.

“We had a lot of false positives come back,” Gardner said.

Solano put those voters back on the rolls in an inactive status and switched back to more traditional methods of tracking them down, such as sending notifications to their address of record and searching through official death records for confirmation.

Neal Kelley, the Orange County Registrar of Voters

Kelley said Secretary of State Debra Bowen had shown interest in using outside data for voter maintenance, but it’s now up to her replacement, Secretary of State-elect Alex Padilla, to decide whether to endorse the practice for statewide use.

Padilla told U-T Watchdog he was open to using outside data “as long as security and privacy concerns are addressed,” but said he would not make any decisions until after he takes office in January.

Padilla said he planned to have a “holistic government conversation” about how to maintain voter rolls starting in January.

“When in doubt, we should keep someone on because voting rights are so sacred,” he said.