Penn researchers document large-scale voter registration problem

October 31, 2002

PHILADELPHIA-More people are registered to vote than there are residents of legal voting age in two states and 241 counties in the United States.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Fels Institute of Government discovered the voting over-registration problem while conducting the Carnegie Corporation funded Fels Voting Index project, an annual ranking of states according to the accuracy, accountability and accessibility of their voting systems. The FVI project was launched in the wake of the 2000 U.S. presidential election.

"The problem leapt out at us when we looked at the voting data maps," said Christopher Patusky, Fels Institute deputy director and FVI project manager.

The county and state data maps compare state voting registration numbers with the total number of people of eligible voting age in each state. The maps were created by Paul Amos, a senior researcher at the Geographic Information Systems Lab at Penn's Wharton School.

"The mapped data clearly demonstrates that voter over-registration is widespread across the United States," Amos said.

Researchers gathered registration figures from the 2000 Election Return Data Set provided by Election Data Services. EDS gets its data directly from the states. Both the General Accounting Office and the recent Cal Tech-MIT Voting Technology Project have relied on EDS for data.

When researchers compared the EDS figures with data for eligible voting-age residents drawn from the 2000 U.S. Census, they determined that in the 2000 presidential election there were more registered voters than voting-age residents in Alaska and Montana and that 32 states have at least one county with more registered voters than eligible voters. This determination led them to the conclusion that registration rolls in these, and many other counties and states, are grossly inaccurate.

"In fact, the problem is even worse than it looks when you consider that you would never have a situation where 100 percent of a county or state is properly registered. This means that the data actually understates the inaccuracy of the registration rolls," said Matthew Tripolitsiotis, a Fels Institute graduate student who first discovered the registration imbalance.

Lara Hoffman, another graduate student working on the project, said "The voting age data includes residents who are not eligible to vote, including some non-citizens, and this means that the percentage of over-registration is even higher than the data shows."

"The over-registration is a symptom of a dysfunctionally decentralized election system. Registration is done almost exclusively at the county and municipal levels, and registration rolls are not regularly updated when people move or die," said Robert Pastor, a voting expert advising the FVI project. Pastor is vice-president of international affairs and director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University.

According to Pastor, the new Election Reform Law will help in encouraging the installation of state-wide, computerized registration lists, but the states will need to take additional measures to ensure that the lists are not duplicative.

"Over-registration creates opportunities for voting fraud and should be eliminated. The Fels Voting Index will shine a light on this and other state voting system flaws," Patusky said.
EDITORS NOTE: .pdf copies of the county and state data maps are available upon request.

University of Pennsylvania

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