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Curious Louis: How can a municipality have more registered voters than residents?

voting booth for paper ballot
File photo | Rachel Heidenry | St. Louis Beacon

St. Louis Public Radio's Curious Louis was recently asked about the Village of Country Life Acres. The 2010 census lists the tiny west St. Louis County village as having 74 residents. Yet, it had 92 registered voters at the end of that year.

How can that be? Eric Fey, Democratic director of the St. Louis County Election Board, said the voter total in Country Life Acres is a result of its outlier characteristics.

“I think this is kind of a statistical anomaly where you’ve got just a very small sample size and you have a very stable population,” Fey said in a telephone interview. “I think it’s probably a community where people kind of buy a house and stay there so you don’t see a lot people coming off and on the [voter] rolls.”

Fey said it’s possible the 2010 total included voters that have since become inactive. As of this month, Country Life Acres has 74 registered voters, a decrease of 18 voters since 2010. Currently, it has 14 inactive voters, and 1 voter disqualified because of a felony conviction.

Fey said he sees no unusual voter registration activity in Country Life Acres.

“In many of these homes, there are several people registered to vote, but going by their last names and dates of birth, they look like families to me.”

A voter registration system 'stuck in the 20th century'

While Country Life Acres was the only municipality with more registered voters than residents, an analysis of 2010 census data and St. Louis County voter registration totals shows that nearly two dozen municipalities had more registered voter than residents over the voting age of 18.

They range from Glen Echo Park, which had eight more voters than residents over 18, to Des Peres, which had more than 700.

A challenge for St. Louis County to get accurate voter totals is what Fey calls a statewide voter registration system “stuck in the 20th century,” where voters have to take it upon themselves to update a change in address.

Inflated voter rolls are not a problem in just St. Louis County. Voters who have moved or died remain on the rolls for years throughout the state of Missouri.

Additionally, a mobile society and the county’s municipal fragmentation exacerbate the challenge in getting accurate voter rolls by city. Address changes do not trigger voter registration changes.

“When you go to update your address at the post office or with the [Department of Motor Vehicles] and whatever else, none of that automatically updates the voter database,” Fey said. “If somebody wants to update their voter information with the election authority they have to take an affirmative action to do that. It doesn’t just automatically happen.”

Does this leave room for election fraud?

Missouri’s voter registration system may leave some worried about voter fraud. Though, it hasn’t been a problem in the county.

A spokesman with St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s office said it is prosecuting two individuals for voter fraud related charges.

The County Board of Elections has safeguards that prevent fraud, Fey said.   

Every other year, according to Fey, the election board conducts a voter canvass during which it sends out a postcard to registered voters. If the postal service returns the card, those voters are deemed inactive and removed from the active voter rolls.

State law says that the voter's name can be completely removed once the person “has not voted in an election during the period beginning on the date of the notice and ending on the day after the date of the second general election that occurs after the date of the notice." That means it can be eight years before a person's name is struck from the rolls. 

Fey said an unusual number of voters registered to one house would raise a red flag and subsequent investigation.

But an unusual number of voters registered to one address isn’t always a sign of potential voter fraud. About 1,000 voters living outside the United States are registered to their last address in the county because of federal election law requirements.  

An additional safeguard from municipal voter fraud is that many municipal elections go uncontested. For instance, Country Life Acres has had only one contested election since 2006.

Improve the system

For Fey, the voter registration totals seem to raise more issues with how registration is done in Missouri than its ability for voter fraud.

He highlights Oregon as a model of a modern voter registration system. That state, the first to implement automatic voter registration, is streamlined so that address changes reported to state agencies such as the department of motor vehicles are updated in the voter rolls.

Missouri’s voter registration seems unlikely to change radically any time soon. In the state capitol, House Democrats have filed bills this term to make voter registration automatic but the bills haven’t reached committee in the Republican-led chamber.

Fey noted one bill of possible reform. HB 1826 would streamline the process for accepting digital signatures on voter registration forms. The bill has passed without opposition through two House committees.  

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