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Originally published Monday, February 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Deceased still on voter rolls

After two families reported receiving mail ballots for deceased relatives, King County Elections Director Sherril Huff says she plans to have her staff take a closer look for registered, but dead, voters — probably going back five to 10 years.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Of the 1.1 million King County residents who could have voted in last week's vote-by-mail election, about 800,000 didn't.

At least two didn't vote because they were dead.

The two cases, brought to the attention of The Seattle Times by a friend of one deceased voter and an in-law of the other, show that a push begun three years ago to clean up the voter rolls has not been entirely successful.

King County Elections Director Sherril Huff said Friday she plans to have her staff take a closer look for registered, but dead, voters — probably going back five to 10 years.

Huff and state election officials don't know how many deceased remain on the voter rolls, but they say they've seen no indication their mail ballots are being used for fraudulent voting.

"It is not a significant problem," Huff said. "Out of our 1.1 million voters, there are relatively few instances that surface on this issue."

One of those instances was Herbert Reynolds, a poll voter who died in 1993. He was taken off the voter rolls a few days before the Feb. 3 election after a friend brought in a letter from his widow and a letter from the cemetery where he is buried.

John Hawkins, who died in 1998, remains on the list of active voters.

In the years after Reynolds died, his widow Irene would see his name in the poll book and would ask election workers to see that his name was removed from the voter rolls, said her friend, Ruth Gibbs. Irene also called the elections office to ask that his name be removed.

In 2007, after elections officials wrote to Herbert Reynolds at his Boulevard Park home suggesting he update his signature for future vote-by-mail elections, Gibbs went to election headquarters and asked that he be taken off the voter rolls.

But last month a ballot was mailed to Reynolds. At Irene Reynolds' request, Gibbs went to the elections office again, this time carrying letters from Gibbs, the cemetery and Irene.

"How many times do I have to repeat this information? How many more dead people do you have on the rolls?" Irene wrote in her letter.

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Reynolds was finally taken off the list of eligible voters.

John Hawkins' family didn't go to those lengths. In the Feb. 3 election, Hawkins — who used to vote by mail — received a ballot at his daughter's Bellevue home just as he has in every election since his death.

Certificates issued

It is not known why Reynolds' and Hawkins' names weren't removed from the voter rolls after their deaths.

King County death certificates were issued for both. Their names should have gone into a state Department of Health database, which was used by King County as a basis for canceling registrations.

Since 2006, the state Secretary of State's Office has, each month, matched the names of dead persons on databases from the Department of Health and the Social Security Administration with a statewide voter-registration database.

The new procedures allow King County to purge local voters who died in other counties or states. King County has removed 55,062 dead people since 2006.

County election workers also scour newspaper obituaries for voters' deaths that may not have shown up in the database search.

Officials also rely on voters' relatives to help. "We urge those voters who are receiving ballots that are not theirs to help us keep our list clean and mark those 'Return to sender' or, if they know they've died, to let our office know," said elections spokeswoman Megan Coppersmith.

Citizens may, under penalty of perjury, sign a form saying they know a voter has died and asking that his or her registration be canceled. The form can be found online at http://your.kingcounty.gov/elections/voterregistration/cancelvrdeath.pdf.

Mail-ballot signature

Because a voter's signature on a mail-ballot envelope is checked against the voter's signature on file, Coppersmith said it's unlikely a person would succeed in using another person's ballot to vote.

But after newspaper reporters and bloggers discovered some ballots in the names of dead people were counted in the 2004 election, seven people pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges they had voted on other people's ballots — in most cases, their deceased spouses.

"How do we have accurate elections when we have no idea who's voting?" asked Gibbs, a longtime Republican Party activist. "Irene [Reynolds] is a lovely, honest woman. She didn't cheat, but how many people are getting ballots for dead people and they're voting them because they know how to sign their names?"

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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