A Maryland organization says it has found hundreds of dead people listed on voter registration rolls in Baltimore and Prince George's counties, as well as residents who have registered in multiple places and some who have addresses that turn out to be vacant lots.
This November, the group says it plans to fan out to polls to watch for problems — but critics say the effort is a smoke screen for a political agenda.
Election Integrity Maryland, which is part of a network of volunteers digging through registration lists across the country, says its mission is to ensure the accuracy of voter registration rolls and encourage citizens to participate in the process.
But its findings have been called into question as exaggerated and politically motivated. The group has ties to a tea party organization in Texas and advocates for voter ID laws.
While such laws haven't gained traction in Democratic-dominated Maryland, proposals to require that voters show a photo ID at the polls have sparked fierce partisan debate in other states and in Congress. The Obama administration has moved to block such laws in Texas and South Carolina, drawing rebukes from congressional Republicans.
Republicans pushing such laws say they want to protect the legitimacy of elections. Democrats point to a lack of evidence of widespread voter fraud and argue that the true aim of such laws is to suppress voting by minorities, who are less likely to have a government-issued photo ID.
The president of Election Integrity Maryland, Cathy Kelleher, says she's not motivated by party politics. "I'm doing it to help the American people and to guarantee free and fair elections," the Montgomery County resident said.
She says she's at her computer by 5:30 a.m. most days and spends the next few hours combing through the work of volunteers who are investigating local voter registration rolls in Maryland. Kelleher, a real estate agent, estimates that she spends about five hours a day on the research.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law estimates that one in 10 Americans does not have a government-issued photo ID — but for blacks, that number is one in four. Since 2011, nine states have enacted photo ID laws for voters, according to the center.
"We know for a fact that there is no evidence of a [voter fraud] problem, and we also know that racial minorities are disproportionately impacted," said Mimi Marziani, a lawyer for the center's Democracy Program. "That raises some huge red flags about why exactly these [voter ID] laws have been enacted."
Election Integrity Maryland describes itself as nonpartisan, but political observers say it may still have a political impact in the state. Efforts to uncover voter roll problems could help mobilize conservative voters in the fall election, which not only features the presidential race but also a state referendum on in-state tuition for illegal immigrants and likely another ballot question on same-sex marriage, said Matthew A. Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University.
"It may bring sort of a degree of enthusiasm and activism among the Republican right in the state to mobilize them more," Crenson said. "The voter ID activism, putting challengers at the polls, that's a mobilization strategy. It's a technique you can use to mobilize people who are sympathetic with the Republican Party."
Kelleher helped found Election Integrity Maryland after attending a summit last year hosted by True the Vote, an initiative launched by the tea party group King Street Patriots.
The Maryland organization now has more than 75 volunteers, Kelleher said. They use a computer database provided by True the Vote to examine voter registration lists and find irregularities, such as someone registered in more than one state.
Most recently, the group has claimed that voter rolls in Baltimore and Prince George's counties have widespread irregularities, including deceased voters and people who also are registered in another state. Earlier this year, group members examined Montgomery County's rolls and said they found similar problems.
The group plans to continue to examine rolls throughout the state, Kelleher said, and is training poll watchers to look for problems at voting locations this fall. A poll-watching training session was held Thursday in Easton, sponsored by the Talbot County Republican Central Committee.
More than 30 states have groups that use True the Vote's model, said Catherine Engelbrecht, the initiative's founder and president. "The database that we provide and train people to use is really nothing more than a well-constructed combination of a number of databases that are all public records," she said.
Baltimore County election director Katie Brown andPrince George's County elections administrator Alisha Alexander said their staffs would investigate the alleged problems that Election Integrity Maryland found.
Brown said that at first glance, she saw some problems with the list the group provided. For example, Election Integrity Maryland said that a number of voter addresses were invalid because they listed commercial properties. But in some cases, those were Towson University students who listed dorms as addresses, she said.
The state Democratic Party is concerned with Election Integrity Maryland's activities, party spokesman Matt Verghese said.
"Even though [voter ID laws] will not happen in Maryland, this is a very worrisome development because this is a way of harassing local boards of elections," he said. "And frankly, who knows what these poll-watchers will be doing on Election Day?"
Kelleher said they would follow the state's strict guidelines on poll-watching, speaking only to election judges. "Their job is to be an observer, just to be there to witness how the polls are operated," she said.
Verghese also criticized Election Integrity Maryland and similar groups for not revealing funding sources, saying they have partisan political objectives.
Kelleher says the group is not legally connected to True the Vote, and that its members cover their own expenses and raise money by charging people for poll-watcher training. The group is not required to disclose its funding sources under IRS regulations.
State Republican Chairman Alex X. Mooney said the organization has no ties to the Maryland GOP.
In 2010, the Texas Democratic Party sued the King Street Patriots, alleging that the group was "an unregistered and illegal political committee" and that its actions had harmed the party and the voting public.
"Their principal goal is to undermine certain parts of the vote for Democrats, but more specifically, they target African-American and Latino communities," said Chad Dunn, lawyer for the Texas Democratic Party.
The King Street Patriots challenged the lawsuit, saying that that Texas election law infringed on its constitutional rights to free speech. In March, a Texas judge upheld the election law; the suit continues.
"All we are doing is working to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to participate in a fair election," Engelbrecht said. "We are completely nonpartisan in that initiative."
Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, said "there is no question that voter rolls are a mess in many places." But Hasen, an expert on voting laws, called it "a big leap" to assume that those mistakes are being exploited by people seeking to steal an election.
"If you look at voter registration rolls, in many cases they're terrible," he said. "But they're not terrible because of fraud, they're terrible because of mismanagement and because of lack of budgets to clean them out."
Hasen, who wrote the forthcoming book "The Voting Wars," said it is extremely rare for someone to impersonate another voter at the polls — and that is the only kind of fraud that voter ID laws would prevent. When fraud happens and turns an election, it's usually done with absentee ballots and vote-buying, he said.
Still, Hasen does not agree with estimates that millions of people in the country would be disenfranchised because of voter ID requirements.
Kelleher said her group is not making claims of fraud but pointing out errors that could lead to fraudulent activities. "If that system is working correctly, why are we finding all the dead people?"
Mary Cramer Wagner, Maryland's director of voter registration and petitions, said Election Integrity Maryland has provided "useful and helpful information" to election officials.
But because of state and federal rules designed to protect people's voting rights, election officials "can't just arbitrarily cancel" someone's voter registration, Wagner said.
Maryland is taking part in a multistate initiative called the Electronic Registration Information Center, launched by the Pew Center on the States to help improve the accuracy of voter rolls. The system's data-sharing capabilities are scheduled to be tested for the first time this month, Wagner said.
The Brennan Center supports such technology to reduce errors in voter rolls, said Nic Riley, counsel and fellow with the center's Democracy Program.
"We think those kinds of actions are a much better way of cleaning up and ensuring the accuracy of voter rolls than private-citizen challenges," Riley said.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the name of the center that launched the Electronic Registration Information Center. The Sun regrets the error.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun