How Dogs, Non-Citizens, and Lawyers Are Messing Up Our Elections

Election Day 2018 is just a week away, and already there have been reports of serious election administration problems around the country.  Here are a few examples.

A California man registered his dog to vote after successfully registering a previous dog in 1996:

Richard Davis doesn't think dogs should vote, but he used his golden retriever, named Cooper, to expose flaws in Monterey County's election system.

The Pacific Grove man went online and filled out a voter registration form for Cooper. The pooch received a registration card in Davis' mailbox showing that Cooper is now a registered voter in Monterey County. The dog also got a voter ID number.

Davis said he has no intention of actually filling out and casting a ballot on behalf of Cooper in November. But he does intend to show how easy it to for a fake person or non-American citizen to vote.

Speaking of non-citizens being registered to vote, the Public Interest Legal Foundation found 1,444 non-citizens had been removed from the voter registration rolls in the Metro Detroit area since 2011. PILF traces the problem of non-citizen registration in Michigan back to failures in the Motor Voter program:

Michigan provides another example of the ease with which noncitizens can register. Furthermore, Michigan illustrates the difficulty faced by election officials in detecting and removing noncitizens from the voter rolls. Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson has worked to maintain the rolls since coming into office in 2011. Her efforts are laudable. But they also clearly illuminate the defects in the system created by Motor Voter. . . .

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Detroit has a voting-age population of 511,090 people. Of this population, 489,335 are citizens, leaving 21,755 voting age noncitizens. Despite this relatively low noncitizen population 822 registrations have been cancelled for lack of citizenship since 2011. . . .

The City of Sterling Heights has 85,123 total registered voters according to the most recent data received from the City. U.S. Census Bureau data shows an adult noncitizen population of 11,679. 164 registrations were cancelled from 2011-present for noncitizenship. Many of these had persisted on the rolls for years. . . .

Other noncitizens persisted on the rolls for over a decade before requesting removal, usually through the immigration process. Some indicated that they never had any intention of registering and have no recollection of filling out any paperwork.

PILF also found 2,264 duplicated active registrations and 1,514 voters with birth dates indicating an age of 105 years or older (though we would note that some birthdates, such as a generic 1900, can sometimes indicate data entry or database change errors and not an 118-year-old voter).  But unlike many jurisdictions in which PILF investigates the accuracy of the voter registration lists, election officials in Michigan complied with PILF's public disclosure requests under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).

As they are before every election, lawyers have been busy in court trying to change the rules on the eve of the election.  One stark example is what happened last week in New Hampshire, where the law (as interpreted by the courts) governing the definition of domicile for voting and verification of domicile that must be presented by newly registered voters changed two times, in three court decisions, in one week:

The voter registration law known as Senate Bill 3 will stay in place through the upcoming midterms, after the New Hampshire Supreme Court on Friday overruled a lower court's order that would have put the law on hold.

The decision from the high court capped off a rollercoaster week for election officials in New Hampshire. On Monday, Hillsborough County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Brown ordered them to stop using Senate Bill 3 (or “SB3”) in the upcoming midterms.

By Wednesday, the state said, essentially, “Not so fast.” Arguing that it was too late to make any substantial changes to the registration process and that Brown's instructions would burden pollworkers, state election officials asked both Brown and the New Hampshire Supreme Court for permission to keep the law in place. . . . In a hearing on Thursday, Brown shot down that request and attempted to address any lingering questions the state had about his initial order, but — in a unanimous ruling issued at 5 p.m. Friday — the New Hampshire Supreme Court took the state's side.

The justices took no position on the merits of the underlying voter registration law at the center of the ongoing court case, but they said the state made a convincing argument that it's too close to the election to switch out the registration rules.

This is known as the Purcell principle, from the 2006 Supreme Court case Purcell v. Gonzalez, which discourages courts from making changes to the rules governing elections too close to the election to avoid confusion for election officials and voters.  

While many election officials work hard to make sure that elections go smoothly and that all eligible voters can vote and ineligible voters cannot vote, the election laws in many states have weaknesses that undermine the integrity of the election process.  Whether it's no requirement to verify citizenship (or humanity) prior to voter registration as in California, errors created or allowed by the NVRA's Motor Voter program as in Michigan, or liberal activists attempting to undermine good laws through litigation as in New Hampshire, election administration problems make election officials' jobs harder and erode public confidence in our election systems and election outcomes.