Casting ballots at the Hartford Public Library last November CTMIRROR file photo
Casting ballots at the Hartford Public Library last November
Casting ballots at the Hartford Public Library CTMIRROR file photo

If the dead vote in Connecticut, they’ve never been caught.

Decades of investigations by elections officials show that proven fraud is exceedingly rare, but when it does occur it is most likely to be committed with an absentee ballot in a nursing home or someone’s apartment, not by an imposter at the polls.

“The majority of these cases are absentee ballots,” said Michael J. Brandi, general counsel and executive director of the State Elections Enforcement Commission.

Brandi keeps a 23-page, color-coded spreadsheet listing 98 complaints of “voting irregularities” since 1975, including 10 referred for criminal prosecution and 28 that were dismissed as unfounded or resolved with consent orders or warnings.

Don’t bother to look for a case of someone voting in the name of the dead at the polls, even if Donald J. Trump frets that 1.8 million dead Americans are still registered to vote.

“There’s never been a case here of that,” Brandi said.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Or that it hasn’t already happened.

But elections officials say the system of registering and voting in Connecticut and most other states is hard to game in any large-scale, systemic way, as Trump regularly suggests is about to happen if his supporters do not keep careful watch on Nov. 8.

“It doesn’t comport with the facts,” Brandi said.

At a rally Monday, Trump cited a report issued in 2012 by the Pew Center on the States to back up his claim that the dead vote, and plenty of them remain on the rolls. Without evidence, he also said non-citizens routinely commit fraud by illegally registering and voting.

“The following information comes straight from Pew Research, quote, ‘Approximately 24 million people — one out of every eight — voter registrations in the United States are no longer valid or significantly inaccurate.’ One in eight,” Trump said. “More than 1.8 million deceased individuals, right now, are listed as voters.’ Oh, that’s wonderful.”

“Well, if they’re gonna vote for me, we’ll think about it,” Trump joked. “But I have a feeling they’re not gonna vote for me. Of the 1.8 million, 1.8 million is voting for someone else.”

But the Pew report never suggested evidence of widespread voting using the names of the dead. Rather, it was a call to update voter registration systems so that they more quickly reflect voters who move and, yes, those who die.

Fact-checkers rate Trump’s claims about the ease of rigging a presidential election as false, while some conservative writers argue that fraud is rampant – or at least that no one is seriously looking for it.

John Fund of the National Review, who recently argued with Brandi and Secretary of the State Denise Merrill about voter fraud at a League of Women Voters’ forum in Greenwich, writes that the Pew report was an unanswered invitation for federal authorities to push local officials to clean their voter lists.

“Even though that’s a rich vein of potential mischief for fraudsters, the Obama administration hasn’t filed a single lawsuit in eight years demanding that counties clean up their voter rolls, as they are required to do by the federal ‘motor voter’ law,” Fund wrote earlier this month. “I’ve spoken to three Justice Department lawyers who attended a meeting on Nov. 30, 2009, in which they claim then-deputy assistant attorney general Julie Fernandez said the DOJ would not be enforcing that provision of the motor voter law because it  ran counter to the law’s overall goal of ‘increasing turnout.’ ”

Michael Brandi, general counsel and executive director of State Elections Enforcement Commission. and Commissioner Stephen Penny.
Michael Brandi, general counsel and executive director of State Elections Enforcement Commission. and Commissioner Stephen Penny. CT Mirror file photo

Merrill said the tools for checking the validity of voting lists have improved in the four years since the Pew report. Not only does Connecticut have a statewide database for local officials to use, the state is one of 21 participating in ERIC, the Electronic Registration Information Center.

Created by Pew, ERIC provides an easy way for elections officials to check their lists for voters who may also be registered in other states, Merrill said.

The most recent case of fraud at the polls was not one of impersonation, but misrepresentation about residence by a legislator, Rep. Christina Ayala, D-Bridgeport. She pleaded guilty to making a false statement about her residence: She actually had lived outside her district and could not legally vote in her own race.

In 2004, former state Rep. Barnaby Horton, D-Hartford, was granted accelerated rehabilitation, a special form of probation, in Superior Court after he was accused of absentee ballot fraud in his losing 2002 primary. He also signed a consent order with the commission and paid a $10,000 fine.

There have been whiffs of identity theft involving the dead. A University of Connecticut journalism project in 2008 found instances where persons had been checked off as having voted after their deaths. Spot checks by elections investigators found errors, not fraud.

Investigators seemed to have an open-and-shut case during the close race for governor won by Dannel P. Malloy in 2014, when a sharp-eyed official in Watertown noticed that an absentee ballot had arrived in the mail from a dead man.

But when they opened the envelope with the ballot, investigators found evidence of honesty by a widow, not fraud.

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill mark pazniokas / file photo

There was an unmarked ballot with a sticky note affixed by the man’s widow: “George Died 9-17-2014.” The State Elections Enforcement Commission closed that case, thanking the town clerk for her diligence.

Merrill said from registration to voting to tallying the results, there are safeguards that make rigging a presidential election highly improbable. Elections are decentralized to the point where voting systems would have to be compromised at the local and state level.

In Connecticut, votes are cast by paper ballots and counted by optical scanners, which are not linked to the internet, providing both a paper trail and a safeguard against hacking.

“That makes me extremely confident it would be difficult to rig an election, from outside the country or inside the country, on any large scale. That makes me feel the entire issue is highly improbable,” Merrill said.

Luther Weeks, a retired computer scientist and software engineer who runs a private oversight group, CT Voters Count, said, “We’ve got the best thing here, voter-verified paper ballots.”

But Weeks also is a critic who says the state’s post-election audits are insufficient, and he warns against complacency about hacking: The scanners use memory cards, which theoretically could be corrupted.

“People say you can’t hack a national election. That’s true. You don’t need to,” Weeks said. “Ohio decided 2004. Florida decided 2000.”

If the current state-by-state polling showing Hillary Clinton with a comfortable lead is correct, rigging the 2016 race would require altering the results in several states — and the victim would not be Trump.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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