Group points out 4 cases in particular; county election officials face obstacles in fixing problem

By Joel Hoffmann5:09 A.M.AUG. 14, 2014

Number of ballots cast in the names of 10 dead voters since 1998, according to U-T story.

The Registrar of Voters was informed last year about four citizens shown in county records as voting after they died — people who remain registered to vote to this day.

The four were featured in a U-T Watchdog story last month about ballots cast in the name of deceased citizens.

The Santa Clarita-based group Election Integrity Project came forward after the story ran, telling the U-T that four of the voters were the subject of a complaint filed with the registrar in November.

“They’re in a tough spot and they have certain rules they have to follow,” said Ellen Swensen, a data analyst for the Election Integrity Project. “But they never responded to us.”

The four voters identified separately by both the elections group and the U-T were:

• Evan Dixon, a Republican from San Diego who died Jan. 26, 2001, at age 44, and records show a ballot was cast for him at the polls on Nov. 6, 2012.
• Forrest Downie, a Republican from Chula Vista who died Nov. 10, 2005, at age 97, and is listed as casting an in-person ballot on Nov. 4, 2008.
• John Neibert of Chula Vista, registered with no political party, who died Dec. 25, 1995, at age 71, and is on record as casting an absentee ballot Nov. 6, 2012.
• Roy O. Stephens, a Republican from San Diego who died Feb. 20, 1998, at age 83, and then was listed as casting a mail-in ballot in the May 19, 2009, election.

In the case of Stephens, a relative also notified the county of his death.

His son, Roy O. Stephens, lives in his father’s former house and told the U-T that he informed the county of the death 10 years ago and asked that election materials no longer be sent — to no avail.

“I guess you could say it’s a bit annoying,” Stephens said. “I’m not big on hanging on the phone trying to get through to bureaucracies.”

The Watchdog investigation last month found that complications often arise when a voter dies outside the county, so there is no official record in San Diego of the death.

But three of the voters in question are shown in the records of the San Diego County clerk as deceased — Dixon, Neibert and Stephens. Downie died in Los Angeles, according to the Election Integrity Project’s records.

California law requires county clerks to send a monthly report of death records to their registrar of voters. It also requires the Secretary of State and the California Health and Human Services Agency to collaboratively provide death records for people who died in other counties to registrars.

The office of Registrar of Voters Michael Vu uses those records to remove voters from the rolls, but he said there is no way to determine why the voter registrations for Dixon, Neibert and Stephens had never been canceled. The office no longer has the records that the clerk’s office sent after their deaths, and Vu did not work for the registrar’s office at that time.

The registrar has left all four voters on its registration rolls over concerns that it might violate state and federal regulations by removing them without proper documentation. The agency is seeking official copies of death certificates.

The registrar’s office has determined that votes marked for Dixon and Neibert in the November 2012 general election were caused by a data entry error — that is, the ballots cast do not match the record shown in the data.

The office no longer has the original ballots from the 2009 and 2008 elections that included posthumous votes in the names of Stephens and Downie.

The Election Integrity Project, which advocates for more barriers to fraud in the elections system, used a different methodology than the Watchdog in its review of voter data to identify after-death votes. The group used a state index of death certificates, while the U-T used a federal Social Security index of deaths.

The U-T’s original story found 26 ballots cast in the names of 10 dead voters since 1998. The Election Integrity group found 15 ballots cast in the names of 10 dead voters, six of whom were different from those identified by the U-T.

The Watchdog found that five of the additional deceased citizens identified by the Election Integrity group also appear in the Social Security death index, matching first name, last name, middle initial and date of birth.

The most prolific deceased voter identified by the Election Integrity group was Joy L. Williams of Escondido, a Republican who died in 2009 at 74 and went on to cast four absentee ballots, according to county records.

The group also identified Lorraine Hawley of Escondido, a Republican who died in September 2010 and went on to cast absentee ballots in November 2010 and November 2012, according to county records.

Most years, hundreds of thousands of votes are cast in San Diego County, so the rate of votes cast in the name of the dead is minuscule.

But the data reviews were not comprehensive, raising the possibility that there have been more votes by the deceased. And the results raise questions about the county’s own system for getting deceased voters off the rolls.

Many elections are close, making the integrity of the process important. In the 2008 Chula Vista election results that include a vote from Downie, Councilwoman Pamela Bensoussan won her seat over Russ Hall by only 46 votes.

Under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, state election officials have to balance concerns about potential voter fraud against the possibility of disenfranchising legitimate voters. In California, county registrars can easily cancel the registration of any voter who provides written consent, but the process of removing voters for any other reason is complicated.

Those who are dead, mentally incompetent or serving out a felony sentence are technically ineligible to vote, but registrars can’t change their voting status without a certified government document.

“Although there is no obligation, we do accept third-party analysis, like the Election Integrity Project, as a means to supplement the effective methods that are currently employed based on federal and state law,” said Vu, the county registrar.

“Any analysis by third parties, including EIP’s, must be addressed carefully as it may inadvertently cause voters to mistakenly lose their right to vote.”

Vu met recently with Ruth Weiss, the Election Integrity Project’s education director and San Diego County liaison, to discuss the group’s observations from the June 2014 election.

Weiss told the Watchdog that Vu has been open and responsive, and she believes he’s doing his best to clean the voter rolls and juggle the rest of the registrar’s responsibilities. Blame rests with the California Secretary of State’s office, she said.

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, handing down new standards for how states should run elections. Among the key provisions was a requirement for states to develop and maintain a centralized database of all registered voters — and to give county registrars timely access to information in situations such as a voter who dies or relocates to another county.

Twelve years later, California is still struggling to establish its centralized registration system, which is expected to be fully operational in June 2016. Secretary of State Debra Bowen’s office did not return a call for comment.

Swensen said the Election Integrity Project is concerned with the potential for voter fraud as much as fraud itself.

“If they’re dead, why are they still on the rolls?” Swensen said. “If dead people are on there, they can be impersonated.”

Vu said his team errs on the side of caution, in part to avoid lawsuits from the Department of Justice or advocacy groups on voter-rights issues. County registrars can flag suspicious voters, but only law-enforcement agencies can investigate and enforce violations.

Following the Watchdog’s investigation last month, Vu referred the two most troubling cases to the District Attorney’s Office.

Dara Welty, an aspiring opera singer who suddenly died in 1998 in Bolivia, had 14 absentee ballots cast in her name, according to the U-T report. Francis DeGregory, a World War II veteran who died in 2008, subsequently had four absentee ballots cast in his name.