State Politics

In Idaho, program to fight voter fraud may cause more problems than it catches

Voters in Meridian in May 2011.
Voters in Meridian in May 2011. Idaho Statesman file

Ada County elections employees have been leery of the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program since 2014 — the year they got burned by it.

It was Idaho’s first year as a member. Ada County received a list of possible duplicate voter registrations and began to revoke several thousand of them, including then-West Ada School District Superintendent Linda Clark, radio personality Ken Bass and former U.S. Attorney and prominent Democrat Betty Richardson.

Those voters began to call. What appeared to be duplicate records, weren’t at all. When the county realized it was in error, it quickly halted the revocations.

Because of the Crosscheck program’s decentralized approach and a lack of feedback, it’s hard to tell its value to Idaho. But a look at what is known suggests it causes more problems than it catches — and it’s not clear that it’s helped catch any Idaho voter fraud that led to a conviction.

“The first year Ada County participated in the program we learned the pitfalls of this process and as a result Ada County has been cautious since,” said Phil McGrane, Ada County chief deputy clerk. “We learned the hard way that there are many people who share names and birth dates across the country.”

Lots of records, very little fraud

The Kansas Secretary of State’s Office launched the Crosscheck program in 2006. Current Secretary of State Kris Kobach took office in 2011, assumed oversight and has doggedly pursued voter fraud. Since 2015, he’s been the only secretary of state in the nation with the authority to prosecute voter fraud cases, obtaining nine total convictions (he at one point claimed 100 cases of “double voting” he could prosecute).

Crosscheck’s aim is to compare states’ voter registration records to find people who vote in more than one state. In 2016, Crosscheck says it compared 98 million records from 30 states, including Idaho, and found more than 5 million potential matches. It did not provide how many of those matches were later confirmed.

This year, 28 states — including Idaho — sent 98.5 million voter registration records to Kobach and Crosscheck. Those included such personal data as birth dates and partial Social Security numbers.

The Idaho Secretary of State’s Office provided 797,534 voter registration records in February. Crosscheck returned 257 of possible concern, said Betsie Kimbrough, state elections director.

And how many were confirmed as duplicates?

“Our office does not have the number of confirmed duplicate records as each county reviewed and processed the records associated with their county,” Kimbrough said.

What about illegal votes?

“Our office does not have the number of illegal votes that were found via the Crosscheck, as each county was responsible for reviewing the matches and submitting possible double votes to their prosecuting attorney’s office,” she said.

Is there voter fraud in Idaho?

Former Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa worked for the office for 28 years, then served as its chief officer for another 12 until his retirement in early 2015. Though he is the one who first signed Idaho up for Crosscheck, he said Friday that he cannot recall any significant cases of voter fraud while he was in office.

“Looking for voter fraud in Idaho? I do not think it is there,” he said.

He also cast doubt upon allegations of widespread voter fraud in the U.S.: “It is looking for a needle in haystack, but the question is if the needle is even there.”

Incidents do pop up. A Lapwai man pleaded guilty earlier this year to making a false statement under oath after attempting to vote twice in the November 2016 election, once in Idaho and once in Washington state, the Lewiston Tribune reported.

Valley County Clerk Doug Miller said he is looking into his first case of voter fraud since taking office in 2013. The incident occurred on Tuesday and involves a person possibly voting in both Valley County and the same Washington county where the Lapwai man voted.

Neither case was a result of the Crosscheck system. And there’s no reason they would have been — Washington is one of five states around Idaho that does not participate in the program. Oregon, Montana, Wyoming and Utah are also not members.

Phil McGrane. Idaho Statesman file

That’s one reason McGrane is not convinced the Crosscheck system is useful in Idaho. He has served as Ada County’s chief deputy clerk for seven years and is running next year for the office’s top position. He said he does not know of any voter fraud cases prosecuted in Ada County.

McGrane said he thinks Idaho’s participation in Crosscheck is of serious concern, and information he learned this week about its security weaknesses from the Statesman and national media reports is “alarming.”

“As someone who was recently the victim of identify theft, I am particularly sensitive to how private personal information is managed and secured by others,” McGrane said.

‘A mistake we should not have made’

He also has not forgotten what happened with Crosscheck in 2014.

The mistake occurred when the county received a Crosscheck list of people with the same names and birth dates who were registered to vote in Ada County and in another state.

The county sent letters to the 3,243 people on the list, informing them it had information that they had registered more recently in another state and, therefore, their Idaho registrations would be canceled.

Then came the calls from voters, disputing the cancellations. Elections workers re-examined the list and realized they had not taken the extra step of crosschecking middle names and partial Social Security numbers, resulting in names identified as matches that were not.

“It is very unfortunate,” said McGrane at the time. “It is a mistake we should not have made.”

McGrane said Ada County continues to receive Crosscheck’s annual list of possible duplicate records from the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office. But his office is skeptical of the data.

Ada County has about 250,000 registered voters. This year’s Crosscheck list contained nearly 9,000 Ada records in which the first and last names and birth date matched records in another state. It is unclear why Ada County's number of records differs from the Secretary of State’s Office. (Update: Secretary of State Lawerence Denney later clarified the figures - read his remarks here.)

County staff quickly eliminated more than 7,000 names because their middle initials and Social Security numbers did not match, McGrane said. Further research found one possible case in which someone may have voted in Idaho and in another state. Staff is still looking into that case, McGrane said.

One last flaw with the approach: Most duplicate voter registrations, he said, aren’t examples of voter fraud. People move, get married or change names, and more often than not their former voting registration is not canceled at the time.

“While it’s important to prevent people from voting twice, it is also important to ensure we don’t unintentionally disenfranchise people in the process,” McGrane said. “Given the security risks, probability of unintentionally disenfranchising voters, and rarity of efforts to vote twice, participating in this Crosscheck program does not seem worth the risks involved.”

Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell

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