[Image courtesy of 45cat]

In recent weeks, counties across the nation have been receiving letters from two voting integrity organizations alerting them to the fact that they have more registered voters than voting age residents. The Public Interest Legal Foundation and True The Vote say that these numbers indicate that election officials aren’t doing enough to maintain the rolls properly and are suggesting they might sue to ensure the door isn’t opened to fraud. The Omaha-World Herald has more:

Seven counties in Nebraska and one in Iowa are being threatened with lawsuits over having more registered voters than voting-age residents.

Two national groups say the numbers are evidence that county officials are not cleaning up voter registration rolls, as federal law requires…

The letters said that poorly maintained voter rolls threaten the integrity of elections.

“Corrupted voter rolls provide the perfect environment for voter fraud,” said J. Christian Adams, the legal foundation’s president and general counsel …

Both national groups said the voter registration numbers in those counties bear closer scrutiny. They cited a provision in the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 that allows private parties to sue over violations of the act.

“We’re looking for the most extreme cases, where the numbers just don’t make any sense, so let’s take a closer look under the hood,” said Logan Churchwell, national communications and research director for True the Vote.

Each group based its conclusions on voter registration numbers reported to the federal Election Assistance Commission, along with U.S. Census Bureau data.

The World-Herald, looking at a similar comparison, found Loup County, as of Sept. 1, had 513 registered voters. The 2014 census estimated the county had 469 residents age 18 and older.

Kimball County had 3,023 registered voters as of Sept. 1, compared with 2,893 residents of voting age, according to the latest census estimate.

Election officials point out that the imbalance doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem as much as a lack of fit between the census and election data:

But state and county officials said data quirks and requirements of federal election laws, not mismanagement or incompetence, account for the apparent discrepancies. They also say that they are complying with requirements concerning removing voters who have moved or died.

Loup County Clerk Debbie Postany, one of the officials who received letters, emphatically denied any laxity in maintaining voter lists.

“Before you send letters accusing hard-working, dedicated and often underpaid public officials of not doing their jobs, perhaps you should be aware of ALL the facts,” she wrote in a reply letter …

For one thing, voter registration laws don’t match up with census practices. A Kimball County college student who gets an apartment in Lincoln would be counted as a Lancaster County resident for the census but would still be eligible to vote in Kimball County.

A Loup County resident who left the county for nursing home care would be counted for the census as a resident of the county where he or she found care, but could remain registered to vote in Loup County.

The county officials (and their state counterparts) also note that they are doing what they can with available information to maintain the rolls:

Kimball County Deputy County Clerk Josi Morgan said she may know that a voter has died or moved, but that person cannot be purged from voter lists without official confirmation.

Officials look to obituaries in the local newspaper or information provided by the state vital statistics office to confirm deaths. Moves must be confirmed by the voters themselves. Officials send out confirmation mailings when they are alerted to a move, such as through a change-of-address notice from the U.S. Postal Service.

If the person returns the mailing, his or her name can be taken off the voter registration list immediately. But up to 50 percent of voters don’t respond. In those cases, federal law requires that they remain on the list for four years.

The requirement is aimed at preventing voters from being inappropriately purged from registration lists. After four years, if they have not cast a ballot in the county, their names can be removed from the rolls.

Secretary of State John Gale, Nebraska’s top election official, said he works closely with county election officials and has confidence in the job they are doing. He said his office is checking into the allegations but doesn’t expect to find any problems.

“We’re not anticipating anything alarming as a result of this,” Gale said. “We’re trying to have the cleanest, most current, most accurate voter database we can.”

A spokesman for Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate expressed similar confidence. Kevin Hall said Iowa ranks among the top states for clean elections.

Still, the two national organizations are likely to press their case, which reflects the pre-existing work True The Vote and the Foundation have done in recent elections:

Churchwell, of True the Vote, said his group has seen progress in the maintenance of Nebraska voter lists.

The organization, which calls itself a nonprofit, nonpartisan voters’ rights group working to improve the integrity of elections, sent similar letters before the 2010 and 2012 elections.

The first time, they sent letters to 13 Nebraska counties with more voters than residents. The second time it was 10 counties. This round, there were five Nebraska counties — Loup, Wheeler, Kimball, Thurston and Keya Paha.

Nationwide, the group sent letters to 136 counties in 21 states. No Iowa county was on the list.

The Public Interest Legal Foundation sent letters to 141 counties in 21 states. Its list included seven Nebraska counties and one in Iowa.

The group, led by an attorney who previously did legal work for True the Vote, describes itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest law firm focusing on litigation related to elections, voting and other political processes.

Churchwell said his group hopes to avoid litigation, although True the Vote filed suits in federal court against Ohio and Indiana in 2012, alleging failure to properly maintain voter lists. Each case was resolved with a settlement agreement.

These letters and county official replies are just the opening shots in what is likely to be an ongoing fight about voter rolls in advance of the 2016 election. As civic groups and election officials alike prepare to celebrate National Voter Registration Day tomorrow, this story is a reminder that there is still much to be done after a voter fills out that registration application.

Stay tuned.