Dead voters continue to cast ballots in New York

The Journal News | October 29, 2006
By John Ferro

Steven T. Vermilye was a home inspector and general contractor who grew up in Croton-on-Hudson - he and his father helped build the boat launch at Senasqua Park - went to college in Texas and settled in New Paltz in 1971.

Betty L. Johnson came from a small town in Virginia and moved to Beacon when she was 17, where she raised eight children while boxing duct tape at Tuck Tape and working in the kitchen at the Castle Point Veterans Hospital.

David S. Stairs was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and came to the mid-Hudson Valley in 1927, where as a 16-year-old he pounded hot rivets into the New York Central Railroad at Croton-Harmon and then spent 45 years working his way up through Texaco's research center in Glenham.

The three mid-Hudson Valley residents had little in common during their lives, but share one thing now: Records exist of them casting a vote after they died.

A new statewide database of registered voters contains as many as 77,000 dead people on its rolls, and as many as 2,600 of them have cast votes from the grave, according to a Poughkeepsie Journal computer-assisted analysis.

The Journal's analysis of New York's 3-month-old database is the first to determine the potential for errors and fraud in voting. It matched names, dates of birth and ZIP codes in the state's database of 11.7 million voter registration records against the same information in the Social Security Administration's "Death Master File." That database has 77 million records of deaths dating back to 1937.

The state database was current as of Oct. 4, the master death index through June.

The same process has been used to identify deceased registrants in other states, but is not yet being used in New York.

The numbers do not indicate how much fraud is the result of dead voters in New York, only the potential for it. Typically, records of votes by the dead are the result of bookkeeping errors and do not mean any extra ballots were actually cast.

The Journal did not find any fraud in the local matches it investigated.

"Of course we are concerned about people voting if they are dead," George Stanton, chief information officer for the state Board of Elections, said in an e-mailed response.

He said an updated version of the voter list was being developed.

"Any tool that will help us maintain a more accurate voter list will be considered for use," he said.

Among the Journal's findings:

- There were dead people on the voter rolls in all of New York's 62 counties and people in as many as 45 counties who had votes recorded after they had died.

- One Bronx address was listed as the home for as many as 191 registered voters who had died. The address is 5901 Palisade Ave., in Riverdale, site of the Hebrew Home for the Aged.

- Democrats who cast votes after they died outnumbered Republicans by more than 4 to 1. The reason: Most of them came from Democrat-dominated New York City, where the higher population produced more matches. 

Tales of votes being cast from the grave are part of election lore. Last year, at least two dead voters were counted in a Tennessee state Senate race that was decided by fewer than 20 votes. As a result of that and other irregularities, seven poll workers were fired, an entire precinct was dissolved and the election results were voided by the state Senate, forcing the removal of the presumed winner. Three elections workers were indicted for faking the votes.

In 1997, a judge declared a Miami mayoral election invalid because of widespread fraud, including dead voters.

And in one of the more notorious examples, inspectors estimated that as many as 1 in 10 ballots cast in Chicago during the 1982 Illinois gubernatorial election were fraudulent for various reasons, including votes by the dead.

In one reported case, a dead man's signature was clearly spelled out on voting records even though while alive he could only mark an "X" because he had no fingers.

In most cases, instances of dead voters can be attributed to database mismatches and clerical errors. For instance, the Social Security Administration admits there are people in its master death index who are not dead.

They include Wappingers Falls resident Hilde Stafford, an 85-year-old native of Germany. The master index lists her date of death as June 15, 1997.

"I'm still alive," she said. "I still vote."

State and federal laws require dead voters to be purged from the rolls, but it requires a tricky balance of commitment and restraint. Failing to do so enhances the opportunity for fraud, the case of one person pretending to be another.

"The only reason it's a potential problem is that elections are very contentious," said David Gamache, Dutchess County's Republican elections commissioner. "And there is a reason why the election law takes up almost 500 pages. If there is a way to cheat people, people are going to look at it and see if it is viable and whether or not they should do it."

Removing dead voters also can save boards of elections the cost of sending unnecessary mail-checks and absentee ballots. But overzealous matching can result in legitimate voters being removed.

"It's almost damned if you do, damned if you don't," said Doug Chapin, director of the nonpartisan Election Reform Information Project in Washington. The nonprofit clearing house was formed in 2001 with a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts to track election reform developments around the country.

Other states have used the death index to supplement data collected by their health departments. Earlier this year, officials in Washington state used health department records and the death index to remove 19,579 deceased people in the first four months after its statewide database was created. The effort there was underscored by the results of the 2004 gubernatorial election, in which Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire won by 129 votes after two recounts of the more than 2.8 million cast.

States are creating statewide databases to comply with the Help America Vote Act, the federal legislation that was sparked by the controversy surrounding the 2000 presidential election. The deadline for compliance was Jan. 1.

In March, the U.S. Department of Justice sued New York over its failure to meet that deadline. In response to a court-approved settlement, the state completed a preliminary version of its database in time for the 2006 election cycle. The database merged each of the 62 county files into one. It is updated daily with changes sent in batches by the counties. The final version will let county officials log in and make changes directly to the database.

New York has not decided whether it will use the Social Security Administration's database to search for dead voters, said Stanton, the manager of data processing services for the state board. Stanton said one concern is that the state, by law, can ask for only the last four digits of an applicant's Social Security number.

"Nobody wants to remove someone from the voter rolls who may not be dead," Stanton said. "I got one of those calls once."

For now, the responsibility of removing dead voters falls on county boards of elections. Each month, counties receive a list of recent deaths from the state Health Department and cross-check that information against their rolls. In August, 21 people were removed by Dutchess County's board this way.

That system does not always account for all deaths.

"You are going to miss people that went across the border, who may have gone hunting or fishing someplace" and then died, said Steve Excell, Washington's assistant secretary of state.

Boards of elections use mail checks as one way to verify the status of registered voters. If a card is returned by the postal service, the voter is flagged as inactive. That method does not work if the card is not returned - if family members are living at the same address and still collecting their deceased parents' mail, for instance.

In Ulster County, Vermilye, the former Croton resident, voted for the last time in his life in 2000. Vermilye was suffering from a malignant brain tumor and needed a wheelchair to get around. He asked his daughter, Lydia Weiss, to take him to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton in the U.S. Senate primary.

"Something like that with a wheelchair and a 200-plus pound man who was immobilized was no easy endeavor," Weiss said. "He lived five miles away, and the whole thing took maybe an hour and a half. The whole reason we went and made such an effort is he thought it was going to be his last. He knew that Hillary had the primary in the bag, but wanted her to have one more vote on her side."

Vermilye lived long enough to cast one more vote, by absentee ballot, in the November general election. He died June 19, 2001, at age 54.

So it came as some surprise to his daughter that the Ulster County Board of Elections had a record of him voting in the 2004 general election. Again, there was no fraud. Ulster officials found that an absentee ballot cast by Vermilye's son, Jamie, had mistakenly been added to his father's record.

"I was willing to assume it was a clerical error," Weiss said. "I am so proud to be from New York, and not a state like Florida or Ohio. But it is discouraging to see even a state (like New York) - that hasn't been revealed to have problems that have made it onto the national radar - is rife with problems of its own."