Puffy rolls

As a resident alien, Guadalupe Guzman shouldn’t be eligible to vote in any election held in this country. That’s a privilege reserved for citizens. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

But last month, Guzman received a voter registration card issued by Detroit’s Department of Elections. If Guzman were to show up at the polls for the Aug. 2 primary, that card would be enough for the native of Mexico to cast his ballot for Detroit mayor, City Council members and school board members.

It wasn’t the only incorrectly issued card that came to the Guzman family’s southwest Detroit duplex. The family received a total of five bogus registration cards, including cards in two names for wife Carmen Guzman, who is a citizen, and registration cards for a daughter who lives in Bloomfield Hills, a tenant from 10 years ago and a man no one in the family has ever heard of, says daughter Christina Guzman, an employee of mayoral challenger Freman Hendrix’s campaign.

The Guzmans’ abundance of cards is a sign of bigger problems with Detroit’s voter rolls.

According to one expert, Detroit may have from 130,000 to 190,000 people incorrectly listed on its voter rolls. Some fear that those padded rolls could lead to election results that are vulnerable to legal challenges.

City officials are downplaying the problem.

Officially, there are about 637,000 registered voters in Detroit. But Wayne State University demographer Kurt Metzger says there are only about 630,000 eligible voters in the city. That’s how many citizens 18 or over lived in the city as of the 2000 Census. Only about 72 percent of eligible voters nationally actually register; in African-American communities the rate falls to about 69 percent.

“All this is to say that the true number of registered voters in Detroit is probably closer to 450,000 to 500,000,” Metzger says.

That’s the figure mentioned in a memo written by staffers of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in 2002, when Detroit’s official voter registration was hovering around 611,000. Despite repeated requests, Kilpatrick’s office didn’t respond to questions regarding what, if anything, the administration has done since 2002 to help fix the problem.

As Detroit’s director of elections, Gloria Williams is responsible for planning, administering and monitoring all city elections. She insists that Detroit’s voter rolls aren’t significantly inflated, contending that the 2000 Census numbers were mistakenly low.

Williams, appointed by City Clerk Jackie Currie (who is up for re-election), says that while there may be some redundancy, she doesn’t believe the rolls are nearly as inflated as Metzger’s estimate suggests.

“If I thought the file was off by 200,000 people, we would have done something a long time ago.” Williams says. “In the November election of 2004, 325,000 people voted in Detroit. If the number is only 450,000, then almost every registered voter in the city of Detroit voted. We would have had a 70 or 80 percent voter turnout. They can either have it one way or the other. I would love to see an 80 percent turnout.”

However, if the number of actual registered voters is near Metzger’s upper limit estimate of 500,000, then the 325,000 who voted in 2004 would represent a 65 percent turnout — which is consistent with Michigan’s statewide turnout for that election.

No one denies there is a problem. The city plans to ask for a report from the State Bureau of Elections on duplicate voter registration entries after the Aug. 2 primary, Williams says. That report would look at the rolls used to generate a July mailing sent to the city’s voters.

Williams says her department has been trying to pare the voter lists for years by sending out mailings. When such mailings can’t be delivered and are returned, the process of purging those voters from the records can begin. But reports and correction of existing redundancies won’t keep the voter lists clean if the system isn’t adjusted to eliminate problems in entering information, Williams says.

Michigan’s Secretary of State office acknowledges that inactive or duplicate voter registrations are a statewide problem, with more than 800,000 names on Michigan’s rolls that have no voter history. Kelly Chesney, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, says that as of 2000, Detroit had about 169,000 people who are registered but have no voting history. Part of the problem, Williams says, is that the 1993 National Voter Registration Act made the process of removing inactive voters from the rolls cumbersome.

Chesney says voters must first fail to respond to an attempted contact, then the name may be flagged, but two federal election cycles must pass before the name can be removed from the rolls. This process should take five years or less. Delays in sending out mailings, Chesney says, have contributed to the current backlog of invalid registrations on Detroit’s rolls.

Although she can’t say how many invalid registrations there are on Detroit’s voter rolls, Williams rejects the notion that the problem opens the door to election fraud.

Political analyst Bill Ballenger, editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, says it’s unlikely that a cash-strapped campaign would be able to effectively mount a wide-scale, organized voter fraud.

“Usually campaigns are scrambling for dollars and scrambling for votes in such a manner they can’t try to take advantage of fraudulent voter lists, but, hey, the opportunity is there,” Ballenger says. “Obviously the voter rolls in Michigan, particularly in Detroit, are inflated with deadwood and dead people and duplicates. It’s not unique to Detroit, but it’s more pronounced percentage-wise. The problems appear to be more obvious and draw more attention, but that isn’t to say they shouldn’t be taken care of. Not much has been done to fix them.”

Ballenger says it’s possible that discrepancies in the voter rolls may lead to conflict over the outcome of the Aug. 2 primary — particularly if the report Williams says her department will request becomes available before the November general election.

Though it’s possible that a disappointed mayoral hopeful might point to the voter rolls as the cause of defeat, Ballenger says it’s more likely that complaints would come from City Council candidates, where there are many more candidates, and the top 18 vote-getters may be chosen by a slim margin.

“This is an accident waiting to happen,” Ballenger says.

Nancy Kaffer is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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