Suit: Philly’s Voter Rolls Are Abnormally — and Suspiciously — Large

A conservative group has filed a lawsuit against the City Commissioners.

Photo credit: Ethan Schwartz via Flickr.

Photo credit: Ethan Schwartz via Flickr.

It seems like every time there is an election in Philadelphia, there are allegations of shenanigans soon to follow, with the good ol’ saying “vote early and vote often” being a staple of our democratic process. But one group isn’t waiting until after the April 26th primary to cry foul. They’ve already filed a lawsuit.

The Virginia-based American Civil Rights Union is the right wing’s answer to the left’s American Civil Liberties Union. Founded by late Reagan administration advisor Robert Carleson and with a board that includes anti-porn and anti-drug crusader Edwin Meese, the ACRU has gone to court against Obamacare and in favor of gun owners and the formerly anti-gay Boy Scouts. And now the ACRU has come to Philadelphia with some pointed questions about our voter registration numbers.

ACRU filed a federal lawsuit against the City Commissioners Office, the municipal body in charge of our elections, claiming that it hasn’t bothered to respond to a January letter that the organization sent demanding access to voter registration records here. The ACRU says the letter was sent by certified mail, and in failing to reply, ACRU maintains that the city is in violation of the National Voter Registration Act.

The ACRU also alleges that our voter registration numbers are suspicious, explaining in its letter and in the suit that “Philadelphia has nearly more registrants than eligible citizens living in the county.” The suit suggests that the city may not be doing what it needs to do to ensure that the voter rolls are accurate and raises the issue of dead voters.

According to the latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, there are approximately 1,112,035 citizens age 18 or older living in Philadelphia, and there are 1,025,483 folks registered to vote here (that number will climb slightly as registrations continue to be processed). That would mean that 92.2 percent of voting-age citizens are registered in Philly.

“Philadelphia’s number of registrants compared to eligible voting-age citizens is almost two standard deviations above the Pennsylvania average, and is among the highest in the state,” says Public Interest Legal Foundation’s J. Christian Adams, one of the attorneys working on behalf of ACRU. “Even if it was the lowest in the state, it wouldn’t matter if they failed to comply with federal law by failing to respond to a public records request under the National Voter Registration Act.”

Philadelphia’s registrants as a percentage of eligible voters is higher than the statewide number, which is about 85 percent, but we checked the data from the surrounding counties, and Bucks, Chester and Delaware counties are all higher, at 93.2, 92.9 and 95.6 percent, respectively. At 92.1 percent, Montgomery County is just a hair less. We also looked at Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County, where the percentage is 91.1

Could it be that these metropolitan areas are just more civically engaged and have better voter registration efforts than our friends in the rest of the state? We asked Adams about the other numbers we found, but he wasn’t impressed.

“This isn’t a case about high numbers,” he insists. “This is a case about refusing to respond to a rightful request to inspect under federal law. It wouldn’t matter if the number was 5 percent. They violate the law when they don’t respond. Period.”

It’s essential to note that ACRU is a prominent voice behind the pro-voter ID movement, which argues that identification is necessary to ensure that there isn’t fraud at the voting booth. There’s little doubt that this suit — and the one that ACRU has filed in Texas — is part of that greater goal. The suit doesn’t go as far as to connect the high percentage of people registered with any potential election fraud, but that’s certainly the implication.

City Commissioner Al Schmidt, one of three commissioners in the city, says he cannot comment on the suit specifically because the city has yet to be served with it (our call was the first he has heard about the action), but he says that even if the city’s voter registration list does have maintenance issues, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to lead to voter fraud.

“Voter impersonation is extremely rare,” says Schmidt, a Republican who penned 2012’s Voting Irregularities Report. Schmidt says that his office’s ability to “clean up” the rolls is limited by the 2002 Help America Vote Act. “A registered voter has to not vote for five years and then miss two federal elections before they can be removed from voter rolls.”

Schmidt concedes that a person who dies or who moves to Alaska might still be on the rolls, because the city doesn’t remove them until they find out that they’ve died or moved to Alaska, or until they are deemed inactive according to the criteria described by Schmidt above. And think of all of the college students who might register to vote here but then move upon graduation.

But having people on the rolls who are deceased or who have moved doesn’t mean people are voting in their names. “In this case, people remain on the rolls for a very long time until they become inactive,” he says. “But that’s not a voter fraud issue, because they’re inactive. That’s not a way that people would go about perpetrating voter fraud.”

Schmidt says that his office is “very focused” on voter fraud and points out that there have been indictments over the last two years for the offense.

Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.