This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Monday, November 27, 2017

A New Form of Election "Fraud" in the US

Michael Wines has a very interesting article in the NYTimes detailing the way in which the attempt to "clean up" lists of voters in several states wound up disenfranchising people who were, in fact, eligible to vote. At issue is something that I have been involved in for a long time--matching records. 

The motivation for cleaning up the voter lists is the requirement of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 that voter registration officials should make a reasonable effort to cull their lists of people who have died, moved away, are not citizens, or are convicted felons whose rights have not been restored. How do you do that? Largely by comparing lists of people, like those who died or who are felons, with the voter registration list.
Officials do tap databases kept by state vital records agencies, the Social Security Administration and the Postal Service, which has a change-of-address list. But the databases cannot assure matches; some jurisdictions do not collect personal information like Social Security or driver’s license numbers that could make a positive ID easier. 
And the databases themselves have flaws and anomalies. Voters with similar or identical names compound the odds of accidental delisting. A University of Pennsylvania study of 125 million voter registration files from 2012 found that some three million registrants shared a common first name, last name and date of birth. And registrants from groups where a few surnames are commonly used are especially vulnerable to being mistakenly struck from the rolls.
In California, for example, where there is a large Hispanic population, many people have the same surname, and often the same first name, as well. This issue came to my attention many years ago, when I asked by the defense lawyers for Richard Ramirez (the "night-stalker") to analyze why there were too few Hispanics showing up for jury duty in the Los Angeles downtown courthouse. When I examined the program that the county was using to match DMV and Registrar of Voter lists, I discovered that it was throwing out people as matches on the two lists when they were actually different people. This disproportionately affected Hispanics. The county rewrote its code and then handed over the job of matching records to a private firm. How did I know what to look for? My doctoral dissertation involved a matching of birth, marriage, and infant mortality records and I had scoured the literature on matching and had written my own program (see Appendix A in Teenage Marriages if you are interested!).

In the legal system, it is obviously important that a person have a jury of his or her peers, and race/ethnicity is the most important characteristic of "peers" according to rulings by the US Supreme Court. So, inclusion of all jury-eligible persons on a master list from which jurors are chosen is important. In voting, it is important that a person who is eligible to vote not be erroneously thrown off the voting rolls and prevented from voting. As Wines points out, this practice in Florida may actually have been the difference in George Bush winning the presidency in 2000.

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