FRANKFORT, Ky. – Kentucky still has significant issues with the accuracy of its voter rolls a decade after the U.S. Department of Justice warned that many counties in the state had more registered voters than people of voting age.
A review by Kentucky Today found that 38 of Kentucky’s 120 counties still have more people registered to vote than they have residents 18 and older.
The discrepancies, identified by comparing the latest voter rolls with population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, were found across the state, popping up in both urban and rural counties, the online newspaper found.
Trey Grayson, former director of Harvard University's Institute of Politics, acknowledged the constant battle all states face to keep voter rolls up to date by removing people who have died, been convicted of felonies, or moved out of state.
“We live in a very mobile society with people moving from state to state all the time,” said Grayson, a former Kentucky secretary of state. “Thus, it’s not uncommon for voters to be registered in more than one state at a time but with no intention of voting in their states of former residence.”
Boone County Clerk Kenny Brown said the decision to remove ineligible voters from the rolls is made at the state level, not by county clerks.
“County clerks are told who to purge, or take off the voter rolls,” Brown said. “We take the directive from the State Board of Elections and the secretary of state.”
The exception to that, Brown said, is when voters move to other counties within Kentucky and obtain new drivers licenses. In those cases, provisions of the motor-voter law alerts county clerks to remove specific voters.
The issue of purging voters has proven contentious across the country, often ending up in the courts. Typically, one side claims purges are necessary to protect the integrity of voter rolls. The other side claims purges tend to disproportionately remove minority voters and the poor.
The difficulty of maintaining accurate lists of eligible voters isn’t new. In fact, former President Barack Obama appointed a bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration, which recommended improving the accuracy of voter rolls by crosschecking registrations between states.
Bradford Queen, spokesman for the Kentucky secretary of state, said his office works hard to keep voter rolls up to date. He said 48,201 people were removed from the voter rolls last year and another 110,980 in 2015.
Voter roll issues aren’t limited to Kentucky, and neither are discrepancies between voter rolls and population.
“But it’s very important to note that this census data is an estimate and voter rolls are not,” Queen said. “Kentucky does not conduct the census, and we have doubts about its accuracy.”
The Pew Center on the States found in 2012 that the nation's voter registration system was "plagued with errors and inefficiencies that waste taxpayer dollars, undermine voter confidence, and fuel partisan disputes over the integrity of our elections."
The review found that approximately 24 million voter registrations across the country were no longer valid or significantly inaccurate, that more than 1.8 million dead people were still listed as voters, and that about 2.7 million people have registrations in more than one state.
Since then, the Pew Center said, state election officials have worked to upgrade voter registration. Some 40 states, including Kentucky, now allow online voter registration to eliminate inefficient paper systems. Twenty states are using the Electronic Registration Information Center, which alerts election officials to voter information that may be out of date.
Kentucky is among about 30 states that participate in what’s known as the Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, which helps to identify who may be registered to vote in more than one state.
“About 10 years ago, when I was secretary of state, the Department of Justice notified the State Board of Elections that several Kentucky counties appeared to have more registered voters than voting eligible adults,” Grayson said.
As a result, Grayson said his office attempted to make contact with all registered voters in the identified counties to try to confirm their residency.
Standard practice in Kentucky is to attempt to reach registered voters who haven’t voted in consecutive presidential races to try to identify those who have moved away. The state also crosschecks names on voter rolls with death records from the Kentucky’s office of Vital Statistics.
“Sometimes family members would let us know that a person moved to another state,” Grayson said. “Other times, the post office sent back our mailing, marking it return to sender.”