Paul Edward Parker has a fascinating story in The Journal detailing that despite having 770,000 residents, Rhode Island has 748,000 registered voters:
The U.S. Census Bureau says Rhode Island has about 770,000 adult citizens and that 73.5 percent of them are registered to vote.
So how many voters does the state have on its rolls?
Need help? Here’s a hint: 73.5 percent of 770,000 is about 566,000.
If that’s your guess, you’re wrong.
Rhode Island’s voting list claims more than 748,000 people.
That’s 180,000 more than the Census Bureau numbers suggest belong there.
And 20 of Rhode Island’s 39 municipalities, from the largest city to the smallest town, had more registered voters than it had citizens old enough to vote.
The reasons appear to be typical (I touched on them when discussing Clay Pell’s registration past); but basically: people die and don’t come off the rolls, people move and don’t cancel their registration, and no one is investing the time and resources to clean up the voter rolls.
So what’s the effect? Well, as Parker points out, it means voter turnout is likely to be calculated significantly lower than it actually is. Right now we’re working off of the unreliable registered voter number. So, for instance, if we recalculate last month’s primary turnout numbers against the Census estimate, then we end up with turnout being around 30%, a significantly higher number than is currently estimated. Since primary elections tend to range from 50%-60% of eligible voters, that number should come up as well. Basically, Rhode Island’s democracy is healthier than we give it credit for.
Now, obviously, there will be people screaming that our ID law is proven necessary by this. Not particularly. Again, in-person voter-fraud is extremely rare – you are more likely to be crushed by a vending machine than experience in-person voter fraud. Furthermore, some of this over-registration may likely be due to people moving from one town to another; and in Rhode Island, the address on your license doesn’t have to match your ID. Your ID simply is there to show that you are you. So our ID law doesn’t prevent a resident of say Johnston crossing to Providence to vote in the mayoral election. Or a resident of Colorado mailing in a ballot to vote in Newport.
While the facts Parker brings to light will undermine faith in our elections, the problem won’t be solved by knee-jerk reactions. It would require spending time and money to make sure voters are actually where they are registered, and also if they’re still alive. But that kind of hard work is severely undervalued these days, especially if means government spending, and so instead, we’re bound to see some heated and not particularly helpful proposals come forward.