Children and Dead People Are NOT Voting in Utah.

It’s pretty clear that Utah election administration doesn’t really look like Chicago Machine Politics in the 1950s no matter how many database oddities we might find.

In a blog post Monday, my colleague Adam Brown analyzed the publicly available Utah voter file with the catchy headline, “Are children and dead people voting in Utah?”  Later in the day he posted a follow up with this headline: “Which counties have more registration errors?” Voting by dead people and children is not a problem in Utah.  These so-called “registration errors” are better termed anomalies.

The blog posts, the brief summary on the Tribune’s Political Cornflakes blog, and the hype on KSL radio missed a lot of nuance. For example, KSL had a story during its 8-9 am drive-time show on Tuesday morning that reported on the posts.  They introduced the story with this (at 31:09 in this mp3 file): “Our top local story this hour. This is something like you’d expect from Chicago.  Dead people staying on the voter registration rolls.”  Later on in the hour (at 46:33 in the mp3 file), KSL introduced Adam for a brief interview with this: “Well, there are either a whole bunch of long-living residents in Utah or some dead people are registered to vote…So, is this like Chicago?” Adam’s actual interview wasn’t quite as dramatic, but he referred to “incomplete record keeping,” his surprise at finding “several thousand people born in the 1800s registered to vote,” and how “carelessness” creates “opportunities for abuse.”

If those were the only things you saw or heard, you might be a little alarmed about the quality of election administration in Utah.  In fact, it is extremely unlikely that there are more than a handful of active registered voters in the state of Utah who are children or dead people.  Yesterday’s blog post laid out data analysis that was not fully informed and the information presented on KSL this morning was unnecessarily hyperbolic.

That said, if you go back to re-read Adam’s posts from yesterday, you will notice that in response to some well-informed readers he has inserted numerous updates.  Adam’s updates to his posts are a good reflection of the cautionary statement (appearing in the top right on every page of this blog): “Buyer beware: Most of our posts discuss ongoing, unpublished research. We may revise our conclusions as we continue our research.”

Adam’s updates go part way toward explaining the anomalies he encountered in the voter file.  Here is a summary plus some additional explanations about voter registration in Utah:

  1. The “invalid” birth dates in the voter file are not invalid but are a function of old voter registrations that were completed in the 1950s before a valid birth date was required to register.  Scott Konopasek, the Salt Lake County Elections Director, clarified that when these records were converted to electronic format, voters were not required to re-register.  Instead, implausible birth dates, like Salt Lake County’s 09/09/1809, are inserted as a placeholder because the database now in use requires a birth date.  In other words, while updating the technology the election officials have to strike a balance between updating the system and hassling senior citizens who have been on the voter files for years.  They have opted against hassling the senior citizens to re-register.
  2. Adam’s original post says, “I’m at a loss to explain why I’ve got 283,836 more registered voters in my database than they reported in November 2010.”  The number of voters in the 2010 general election is different than the number of voters in the voter file because Adam included all registered voters in his numbers.  The voter file lists a voter’s status as “active,” “inactive,” “not eligible,” “suspended,” and “removable” with the vast majority listed as “active” or “inactive.” The number of voter registrations reported in the 2010 general election by the Lt. Governor’s office includes only the active voters.  This easily explains the 283,836 difference.  Once you compare apples to apples, any remaining discrepancy is small and occurs simply because the file is updated in real time, so analysis reported by the Lt. Governor’s office reflects the voter file at a fixed point in time and the numbers will change as registrations are updated throughout the year.
  3. County clerks handle thousands of voter registrations each year for a database that includes over 1.5 million names.  They have procedures in place to clean up the voter file, but this is an orderly process that is constrained by the law.  An “active” voter is an official classification that is defined in the Utah code. In plain language, an active voter is a registered voter who has voted in at least one of the last two federal elections and/or has responded to a confirmation notice sent by a county clerk.  An inactive voter means the registrant failed to response to the confirmation notice sent out by the county clerk and/or the county clerk received information that this voter no longer resides within their jurisdiction.
  4. Utah is at the forefront of modernizing voter registration procedures. Last year, the Lt. Governor’s Office and county clerks launched an online voter registration website.  Obviously, this makes voter registration easier in Utah, but the website is also a tool to assist county clerks in reducing errors because a voter registration submitted online no longer has to be transferred from paper to the voter registration database.  Citizens who register on the website may still enter a typographical error, but notably, the website will not allow users to submit the registration without a proper birth date.  Also, remember that Utah requires that voters show ID when they vote.  In the end, there’s not a lot of room for fraudulent registrations that will turn into fraudulent voters.
  5. Finally, there are some county clerks who actively go to high schools and register students who are 17 but will be 18 before the next election.  These records are listed as “suspended” until the person turns 18 and is officially eligible to vote.

Are there still errors in the Utah voter file?  Of course.  But, perfection isn’t a realistic standard.  My very best students always make mistakes on exams.  It doesn’t make them bad students.  Aside from the explanations above there are good reasons why we shouldn’t expect a perfect voter file: People die and move between elections.  Errors occur in data entry.  Laws change and require new technology and systems to be superimposed over existing data.

When election administration is compared across all of the fifty states, Utah routinely comes out looking very good.  For example, in a report issued by the Pew Center on the States reviewing the content and usability of state election web sites, Utah ranks #3 in the country (and only a few points away from the #1 spot).  Utah’s efforts to modernize voter registration have attracted national attention.  One Pew official was quoted calling Utah’s efforts “pioneering.”

In our own exit polling, Utah voters express extremely high confidence in the state’s election system—more than 7 in 10 are “very confident” and 9 in 10 are very or somewhat confident.  This is substantially better that what we have seen in Ohio.  (For details, see this long report.  The tables on pages 16 and 68 have the details on voter confidence).

High voter confidence should generally be interpreted as a by-product of well-run elections (see here, here, and here for three of my own journal articles that present a lot of evidence for this point).  The high confidence that Utah voters have expressed in our elections is well deserved and is a function of the efforts of election-day poll workers, county clerks, and the Lt. Governor and his staff.  Once you take all of these factors into consideration, it’s pretty clear that Utah election administration doesn’t really look like Chicago Machine Politics in the 1950s no matter how many database oddities we might find.

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About Quin Monson

Quin Monson is Associate Professor of Political Science and a Senior Scholar with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.
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