Raleigh, N.C. — It sounds like a simple enough idea: take the list of people who have been excused from jury duty because they were listed as "non-citizens" and compare those names to the voter rolls. The matches could be non-U.S. citizens registered to vote in our elections.
That was the method conservative provocateur James O'Keefe used in a video that went viral this week when he claimed to find non-U.S. citizens registered to vote in North Carolina. A local group called the Voter Integrity Project of North Carolina also used it to identify 553 registered Wake County voters who could be non-citizens.
Those reports have added fuel to a contentious debate over whether North Carolina should require voters to show ID when they go to vote. Currently, poll workers are only allowed to ask a voter to state their name and address in most situations.
But there is a problem with the method that provided the foundation of those reports.
Comparing juror and voter information leads mostly to false or misleading matches. When WRAL News conducted a similar analysis earlier this year, every potentially fraudulent voter identified was a U.S. citizen.
The liberal group Think Progress has reported that the two non-citizens targeted in the O'Keefe video are actually naturalized U.S. citizens. Election officials have debunked another part of his report that purported to show a dead person voting.
That is not to say there aren't problems in the voting system. In 2011, the North Carolina State Board of Elections identified 12 non-citizens who had improperly voted in a North Carolina election.
That's 12 out of 6.3 million registered voters.
As the General Assembly returned to Raleigh this week, they are once again weighing calls for better ballot security against the possibility that voter ID measures could disenfranchise some voters.
Problems are hard to identify
"There are too many stories like that to say that people are just making it up," said Jay DeLancy, a retired Air Force officer who is now the head of the Voter Integrity Project of NC, a year-old effort to push for tighter ballot access laws. His group is an offshoot of a larger movement known as True the Vote, a national effort by citizen activists to cull ineligible voters from voter rolls.
DeLancy said it would be hard to believe that all of the 553 voters his group has challenged in Wake County are proper voters.
But given WRAL News's experience, that just may be the case.
Through an open records request, we compiled a list of 1,980 people who a Wake County Clerk of Court's database showed were excused from jury service because they were a "Non Citizen of State." We then compared those names to State Board of Elections voter records.
Of 169 possible matches, WRAL News was able to determine all but 83 were either not the same people or had good reason to be in both data sets. For example, as with one of the subjects of the O'Keefe video, we found individuals who were excused from jury duty and later became naturalized U.S. citizens. Others, who had moved out of North Carolina, were clearly mislabeled as non-citizens in the court database.
For the 83 remaining matches, who could not be located or would not speak to WRAL News, the State Board of Election documented that the people in question were legal voters using information from the Division of Motor Vehicles and other sources.
Still, anecdotes of voting irregularities persist throughout the state. In 2011, Washington County had to order a new sheriff's election because of problems with how ballots were counted and recorded. The conservative John W. Pope Civitas Institute reported this week on a mentally disabled woman who was registered to vote without her guardian knowing.
And cases of people going to the polls and finding their names already checked off as having voted are reported just about every year.
“Every one of those we have ever researched has been poll worker error,” Gary Bartlett, director of the State Board of Elections, said of people arriving to find their names already checked off. As for the most common voting bugaboo, the suggestion the dead might be voting, Bartlett said he has heard lots of allegations since becoming director nearly 20 years ago.
"I am aware of only one, and that was a son voting for a father," Bartlett said.
Still, activists concerned about the subject say there is too much smoke for there not to be fire.
"We believe there are a lot of people who are fraudulent on the voter rolls," DeLancy said. "Dead people -- to me, that's fraudulent."
Bartlett said the state board was examining the names on DeLancy's list, more than 70 of which were names submitted by WRAL. So far, Bartlett said, no non-citizens have been found. As for the O'Keefe video, Bartlett calls it a "stunt." While elections officials are happy to work with citizens who think they find problems, he says people need to be more responsible for making accusations.
"Stunts like that are a mockery of the process. It hurts," Bartlett said.
The dead do vote
As Bartlett or pretty much any election director from a large county will tell you, the dead do vote in every election. This happens when someone casts an mail-in or in-person absentee ballot and then dies before Election Day. The law, Bartlett says, is unclear on whether that vote should count.
But when advocates for voter ID legislation talk about the dead voting, they're suggesting a conspiracy to help a specific candidate or political party.
"Voter ID addresses a widely held public perception that there are too many ways to game the system," said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, who oversees much of the voting legislation in the House.
The topic is polarizing. Advocates are most often conservatives and objections have come mainly from Democrats and liberal-leaning groups, civil rights organizations such as the NAACP as well as non-partisan good government organizations such as Common Cause.
In 2011, the General Assembly sent a voter ID bill to Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, who vetoed it. While Republicans in the state Senate voted to over-ride Perdue's objections, the state House could muster only 68 of the 72 votes needed. No Democrat sided with Republicans.
Those hoping to keep that version of the voter ID bill from becoming law say they are worried a group of conservative Democrats who sided with the GOP on the budget might give Republicans the votes they need to finally override Perdue's veto.
"I don't see the votes for it anywhere," said Rep. Jim Crawford, D-Granville, one of those conservative Democrats who just lost a bitterly contested primary. Crawford said he has heard a new voter ID bill might be in the offing.
"We have commitments sufficient to keep the veto from being over-ridden," said House minority leader Joe Hackney, D-Orange.
House Speaker Thom Tillis said Wednesday that he is not concentrating on the veto override. Rather, he said, Republicans may draft a compromise bill that would allow people without photo ID to provide other sorts of documentation. A similar measure was offered last year but ultimately dropped when Republicans concluded they wouldn't have enough support to pass it in the House.
Even such a compromise bill would pose concerns for some advocates.
"There is no evidence that voter fraud is a problem in North Carolina," said Bob Phillips, head of the North Carolina chapter of Common Cause. He argues that placing barriers in front of people could drive them to give up on voting. Minorities, the elderly and college students would be most at risk of being blocked from ballot access, advocates opposing voter ID measures told the General Assembly in 2011.
Phillips said compromise measure that would allow people to present alternative documents, such as a utility bill, as proof of their residency would be "more palatable" than the vetoed measure that relied on photo ID.
"If we provide plenty of options ... that might be okay," Phillips said.
Mailing it in
State elections officials say they are already working to ensure that people who shouldn't be allowed to vote aren't registered. Elections officials regularly compare voter rolls to lists of felons, national lists of people who have moved out of state and DMV files.
"No system you ever put in place is going to be 100 percent," said Marc Burris, information systems manager for the State Board of Elections. "So we focus a majority of our efforts on auditing."
The board of elections will soon have continual access to the Division of Motor Vehicles driver license data base, rather than relying on annual data dumps. Those DMV records, Burris said, are some of the best sources for verifying citizenship and address information.
Among the worst? Social Security Administration records.
"Their data, for lack of a better word, is horrible," Burris said. That's because people don't always keep the agency up to date on name and address changes.
Dodgy data and worries about disenfranchising voters lead the board to be cautious when removing voters.
Bartlett recalls talking to a man who wasn't allowed to vote because one data source said he was dead. In another case, elections officials thought they had found an escaped felon when a woman with the same name and birthday as a convict registered to vote. But the voter in question was a half a foot taller, and a different person, than the wayward prisoner.
That is not to say that election officials do not occasionally find people on the voter rolls who do not belong there. Most of those are accidentally enrolled by the DMV when they get what's know as a "legal presence" driver license. Others are signed up during voter drives.
On Feb. 22, 2011, the state mailed 637 letters to people with suspect citizenship status. According to an April 2011 memo summarizing the results of that effort:
- 223 were citizens at the time they registered.
- 4 had become citizens but registered before they were naturalized. That group was asked to re-register to vote.
- 79 registered voters, who apparently were not U.S. citizens, signed a form requesting to be removed as voters. Of these voters, 67 have not voted and 12 have voted.
The remaining 331 either did not respond or the registered letter was returned. They were removed from the voter rolls.
Bartlett points out that voter ID would not have prevented many, if any, of those people from voting. Those enrolled by the DMV, for example, would have an driver license that showed who they were.
That said, election officials say they could run an election however they were instructed. There might be longer lines the first time the rule is in place, Bartlett said. But as voters and poll workers get used to the new system, it would become a "non-event," he said.
The biggest difference, he said, would be that many people might choose to vote by way of a mail-in ballot. Voters who get mail-in absentee ballots don't have to show ID now or under the bill that Perdue vetoed last year.
"You would see us become a mail state overnight," he said.