No, A Dead Poet Did Not Vote In East Lansing’s Most Recent Election

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Charlotte Brontë voted in the November 2020 election in East Lansing. To make things seem even weirder, Brontë was residing, at the time, at the Dublin Square pub, just across the street from City Hall. 

At least that’s what a recent examination of Michigan’s Qualified Voter File seemed to show.

But a bit of digging has revealed the voter was not dead, is not a poet (so far as we know), and was not really living at the Irish-themed pub. The voter is a real woman who happens to bear the name of a famous late poet. Although she does not live at Dublin Square, the person registered legally, as we explain below. And she voted in the most recent election in person at her East Lansing precinct.

What at first appeared as an election impropriety in East Lansing really represents a look into apparent irregularities that arise from the challenges of Michigan voting database management, which aims to support the right to vote.

So, what actually happened and what’s being done in response? ELi brings you the answers.

How did this issue come up in the first place? 

East Lansing resident Anne Hill — a member of ELi’s Community Advisory Board and a frequent database-examining public commenter at City of East Lansing meetings — was doing her own research to coincide with the City’s soon-to-be-completed housing study. (The housing study is supposed to tell us if there is going to be a bubble in student-attracting housing in East Lansing.)

In doing her own housing research, Hill turned to Michigan’s Qualified Voter File (QVF) to cross-reference residencies, to try to figure out something about the demographics of who is living where in East Lansing. As she worked with the QVF — commonly referred to as “voter rolls,” which are, in essence, a master list of all people who could vote in an election — Hill discovered a number of apparent irregularities.

The most notable of those appeared, on initial review, to show a dead poet voting while supposedly living at Dublin Square.

Dublin Square, shown before The Abbot was built a short distance away.

At a recent meeting of Mayor Aaron Stephens with the Council of Neighborhood Presidents, Hill brought forward that oddity and several others she found in a partial analysis of East Lansing voters. Going alphabetically by street name, she had completed A through G by then. 

When initially presented with Hill’s findings, the mayor laughed about it. In a subsequent message to ELi, Stephens said that he did not think the issue of potential voter fraud was a laughing matter, but that he found the idea of a dead poet voting to be funny. 

Regardless, the question of what happened in that case needed an explanation — and, if necessary, an investigation into illegal voting. Other apparent irregularities turned up in Hill’s research also warranted explaining.

What were some other concerning findings?

At the Council of Neighborhood Presidents meeting, Hill cited some specific irregularities she found besides the apparent dead poet’s vote.

One involved the discovery of about 50 registered voters living on Cherry Lane, a street that doesn’t exist anymore.

Another involved eleven 49- to 51-year-old women who all appeared as legally registered to vote at a fraternity house in East Lansing, along with a group of 20- to 23-year-old current frat members. All the women had registered to vote around 1991, suggesting their registrations were held over from 30 years ago, when they lived at the house.

Both of these apparent problems have now been explained to ELi by East Lansing’s City Clerk.

East Lansing City Clerk Jennifer Shuster at work. (Photo by Gary Caldwell for ELi.)

With regard to Cherry Lane, City Clerk Jennifer Shuster said, in a message to ELi, that “if a voter is linked to an address, [the voter registration] cannot be removed from the street index. For example, a military or overseas voter may still remain registered at their last known address in Michigan even if someone else is residing at that address or the physical residence is no longer there.”

If someone serving in the military had their voter registration removed by virtue of their former street no longer existing, that person would, in effect, be disenfranchised. So it’s left as is.

As for the middle-aged women apparently living at a fraternity? 

“All of those individuals were previously placed on the Inactive Voter File (IVF), but still show up on the voter list as they are part of our voter roll assessment and cleanup,” Shuster explained. “None of those individuals have voted with that registration information in East Lansing. Additionally, it appears that the property was sold to the fraternity in 2006, according to assessing records.”

Local lawyer, political consultant, and Ingham County Commissioner Mark Grebner explained further for us that the nature of Michigan’s QVF being hand-maintained by the Secretary of State’s office means there’s often a delay between addresses coming into existence — i.e. a new apartment building opening — and that address appearing on the QVF. 

Grebner said this is what happened to Charlotte Brontë when she registered to vote. Living in a newly-constructed building, The Abbot, her actual residential address wasn’t yet available in the online registration system when she went to register. So, she apparently simply used the nearest address she could find in the system. That was Dublin Square’s, the closest building on her side of the street.

This explanation was confirmed by the City Clerk’s office.

“The point is [that] we have for everybody a location of residence,” Grebner said. “In her case, it would have been The Abbot, but there was no way to introduce it, to communicate The Abbot’s address, because [the] table hadn’t been updated yet. There’s always a slight latency. The second address that everybody has is a place that you can receive mail. And that can be different.”

So, how did Charlotte Brontë vote? 

If the living Charlotte had requested an absentee ballot, she presumably would have indicated her correct mailing address at The Abbot, and her ballot would have gotten to her that way. The whole point of an absentee ballot is to get it to you where you really are. But, in fact, we know that the living Charlotte voted in person, at her precinct location.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

Dublin Square (foreground) with The Abbot to the left.

Why didn’t her address get corrected then, at the polls? According to Shuster, “the electronic pollbook (EPB) that the poll workers use at the polling locations has data that is uploaded directly from the QVF.” 

That means there wouldn’t have been a way for poll workers to know the address showing up for Charlotte was a non-residential unless they took the time to check for themselves. 

In a message from Clerk Shuster to Mayor Stephens, passed along to Anne Hill, the Clerk noted: “when the City Clerk’s Office catches a non-residential address on a paper voter registration application, we contact the voter as soon as possible. With the recent implementation of online and automatic voter registration, this process [makes it] more difficult to catch these rare instances.”

“You have to give them a domicile address, you know, an address at which you’re living,” Grebner explained further. “But if you don’t, if you give them some other address, if you’re not doing it fraudulently, it’s still okay. In other words, nobody gets their hand chopped off for not filling a form out right.”

What comes now?

According to the message from Shuster to Stephens, the Clerk’s office has been in contact with Charlotte Brontë and the address discrepancy is being remedied. Beyond that, the Clerk’s office has several part-time employees dedicated to cleaning up the voter rolls. 

Shuster said that, “while the City Clerk’s Office works year-round to keep the voter rolls up to date, we are working especially hard during this time [that is, the stay-at-home period] to take an even deeper dive into voter information. Therefore, situations like the one above are important for us to be aware of.”

Both Shuster and Stephens met with Hill last Friday. 

Hill said it was “a good meeting” and that now is a good time for maintenance of the voter rolls, because there’s a full calendar year between elections. (November 2021 is the next election in East Lansing; there will be three City Council seats on the ballot.)

Hill plans to keep working on her housing study along with keeping an eye on other issues she is interested in, including the massive spending for the revision of the wastewater treatment plant. (Hill voluntarily provides substantial assistance the ELi reporting staff with her research and analyses.)

One final note: On January 28, the day before Hill met with Shuster and Stephens, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced that as part of cancelling 177,000 voter registrations, the State is going to be making the list of canceled registrations available. ELi has requested that list and is waiting to receive the data. 

Editor’s note: ELi has elected not to use the real shared-name of the actual living voter and the actual dead poet to respect the privacy of the living voter. (We subbed in the name “Charlotte Brontë.”) To be absolutely clear: the living voter did nothing wrong, and her vote was legal.

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