East Lansing’s voter rolls are unusually bloated with the names of people who should have been removed by now.
That’s the data-based conclusion of East Lansing resident Anne Hill, who has spent weeks combing through the City’s Qualified Voter File (QVF) — the official list of who is registered to vote. East Lansing’s QVF has around 25,000 names in total, and Hill has now identified 4,236 names of people on the QVF who no longer live in the City .
Coincident with Hill’s findings — which she shared with ELi — the Michigan Secretary of State’s office announced in January that about 177,000 names are to be cleared from voter rolls statewide.
Of those 177,000 names set to be cleared, 1,286 are registered in East Lansing. Hill said 422 of those names overlap with her list, but the Secretary of State’s list includes an additional 864 names she had not identified, bringing her total to 5,100.
That’s just shy of 20% of names in the City of East Lansing’s QVF.
“The state said, ‘Oh, we found these 177,000 people.’ That is [distributed] over 5.5 million qualified voters throughout the entire state. Which made their [statewide] percentage 3.2%,” Hill observed. “Well, when you compare that percentage to the City of East Lansing, at a minimum, we’re talking 17%. And it could be as high as 20% or more” outdated residencies in East Lansing’s QVF.
Hill’s research into the QVF began after she was using it as reference material for research on housing in the City. After noticing oddities in the QVF, Hill dug deeper into that data (and discovered the story of a dead poet seemingly voting in East Lansing).
Going by street address in the QVF, Hill checked property records when possible to identify owners and to match them with the QVF. For campus addresses, fraternity and sorority houses, and apartments, Hill would check internet records, including Michigan State University’s website, to ascertain a graduation date and whether the person had moved out of town.
Hill sent her findings to East Lansing City Clerk Jennifer Shuster on Feb. 27, and Shuster replied to Hill, saying her office would review the information.
Whether the Clerk can remove a person from the QVF depends on a number of factors.
Mark Grebner —political consultant, attorney, and Ingham County Commissioner — explained to ELi that, in Michigan, there isn’t a very clear system for removing people from voter rolls, but there are a number of ways it can ultimately happen.
First, when someone dies, they show up in the Social Security Administration Death Master File, which gives information like full name and date of birth, Grebner said. State agencies effectively subscribe to it to determine if someone who is registered to vote has died and should be removed.
But, Grebner noted, there can be hesitancy to remove a name if the name doesn’t precisely match the QVF or if the voter went by their middle name; there’s a certain level of human uncertainty involved in the system.
Grebner then explained how a name might be removed from East Lansing’s QVF without the person dying.
If one moves within the State of Michigan and registers to vote in a new jurisdiction, the process of removal is actually quite straightforward. It basically involves the Michigan Secretary of State sharing with the East Lansing City Clerk the information that someone has registered in a new part of the state.
The process is similar if someone moves out of state, Grebner said, but whether things work out correctly there begins to rely on the efficacy of databases and whether the two states are part of a consortium of Secretaries of State.
Lastly, if someone is registered to vote in a jurisdiction but hasn’t voted in the last two federal elections, the Clerk sends a verification card to the person at the registered address. But, Grebner explained, whether the Clerk ends up confident that the person should be removed depends on what if any information comes back and the Clerk’s interpretation of the situation.
It is possible that all the names Hill identified are not active voters in East Lansing, but it’s unlikely that they will all be removed from the QVF.
Dorms had the highest density of outdated residencies, Hill said.
In inspecting the QVF, Hill found that dormitories on MSU’s campus were the most common location for registrations of people who are no longer living in East Lansing.
“By far the worst, bar none, is the dormitories,” Hill said.
Fraternity and sorority houses were the next densest, according to Hill. Apartment complexes were not as dense, Hill said, likely because people living there are not exclusively itinerant students.
Hill theorized that the registrations build up at the dorms and other student housing because students may move into a dorm or apartment, register to vote, cast a ballot in one or two elections. Then they leave town, leaving behind a voter registration tied to a dorm room, apartment, or Greek house.
Considering how MSU’s large student population turns over — and moves around — year after year, this makes sense to Grebner.
He shared an anecdote about a time the City sent voter verification cards to West and East Holmes Hall. Apparently, Grebner said, the person working the front desk at West Holmes threw out the cards, and the person in East Holmes filled them out and returned them. The registrations in East Holmes Hall got removed, while the ones in West Holmes remained.
“If, every year, we pile up 500 names that are just kind of stuck there permanently,” Grebner said, “after 10 or 20 years, you can see that’s a pretty large number of names in East Lansing. And that’s what you’re looking at.”
Hill expressed concern that more attention isn’t being paid to the voter registrations from student-heavy housing.
“Why are the dorms so bad [in terms of accuracy of the rolls] if monitoring is going on?” she asked, adding, “what is your process for monitoring? Because obviously that needs to be changed.”
Grebner points out that, in the past, erroneously removing someone from the voter rolls could present a much higher risk of interfering with their right to vote than is true today. That’s because Michigan’s Proposal 3 has made it easy to register on Election Day. So, if someone were to go to the polls and discover they had been removed, they could remedy the problem by re-registering and still voting that day.
Now, Hill’s findings have been sent to the Clerk.
Hill’s examination of the QVF itself is done for the time being — she’s refocusing efforts on housing, though she is looking at who did cast ballots in the November 2020 election. And she’s going to return to the QVF, eventually.
“My intention is to give [the City Clerk’s office] some time to review, verify, and remove those appropriate names and then submit a FOIA request around the June timeframe so that I may begin a second pass through of the names on the QVF file to further refine it,” Hill wrote to Shuster when she shared her most up-to-date findings.
Shuster thanked Hill in reply and noted her office has already begun the process of identifying individuals for verifications.
“We, too, have been busy identifying voters who are being sent verification cards,” Shuster wrote. “In addition to that, we are also updating all of our physical master cards for our new voters and also pulling cancelled/moved voters [and] properly retaining those cards per the retention schedule.”
Hill is happy to do this work of her own volition. She is not suggesting there was fraud in the 2020 elections in East Lansing. But with a seemingly large number of excess names registered in the City’s Qualified Voter File, Hill thinks “the risk is there.”
“When I look in my own backyard and see this,” Hill said, “I have to say: Wow.”
Update: On Tuesday morning (Mar. 9), the Clerk’s office wrote to ELi to note that the City had recently had 1,291 voter registrations cancelled via the Michigan Bureau of Elections and National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).
“These specific voters either surrendered a Michigan Driver’s License to another state or had election mail returned undeliverable to an election official prior to the 2018 election requiring a response, did not respond to the notice and did not engage in any voting activity in at least the last two federal election cycles (2020 and 2018), the minimum waiting period required under the federal law, the NVRA,” the message read, in part.
Additionally, the Clerk noted that 15% of registered voters in East Lansing (around 3,700 people) remain on the Inactive Voter File and are in the “cancellation countdown process,” meaning they’re headed towards the same fate as the 1,291 already removed. Per the Clerk, the voter list maintenance cannot happen within 90 days after a primary or general federal election.
”A City Clerk’s office cannot disenfranchise voters by inadvertently canceling their registrations. Therefore, we will continue to meticulously follow federal law and verify permitted information to systematically perform voter registration maintenance,” the note concluded.
See the table of names set to be purged from voter rolls across the state (from the Secretary of State’s office) here.
Note: We removed a link to Hill’s database. Although the material is all drawn from publicly-available sources, a reader complained about it being assembled and made available in this fashion. Contact us if you have questions.