Suit alleges Detroit has thousands of dead residents on voting rolls

An advocacy group is suing Detroit election officials, claiming they violated the National Voter Registration Act by failing to properly maintain city voting rolls, including listing long-dead residents and keeping multiple registrations for the same people. 

The "failure" to comply with federal voter registration laws "undermined the confidence of Detroit’s properly registered voters in the integrity of the voter registration rolls and, accordingly, has undermined the integrity of elections held both within the city of Detroit and across the state of Michigan," the complaint contends. 

The Public Interest Legal Foundation filed the suit Tuesday in U.S. District Court, targeting Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey and elections director George Azzouz.

The Public Interest Legal Foundation filed the suit Tuesday in U.S. District Court, targeting Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey and elections director George Azzouz.

The nonpartisan, Indiana-based nonprofit filed the lawsuit after spending more than two years seeking to resolve Detroit's voting record issues. The foundation said it attempted “to cure problems” with the voter roll maintenance practices when it first requested records on Oct. 3, 2017.

Ultimately, it purchased the state’s entire voter roll on April 1 and analyzed Detroit's voter registration list. Multiple efforts have since been made to have Detroit's discrepancies corrected, but the alleged errors were "brushed aside," said Logan Churchwell, communications and research director for the group. 

"Someone dropped the ball, and they keep dropping it," Churchwell said. "All you need is a little bit of chaos to spread distrust."

Duggan administration spokesman John Roach in an email Wednesday referred questions to Winfrey. The city's Law Department, he added, has not seen the lawsuit, nor has it been asked by the clerk to represent her office on the complaint. 

Reached Wednesday, Winfrey did not immediately comment on the filing. Azzouz did not return a message left by The News. 

The city had 511,786 registered voters as of the 2016 general election, according to Detroit election data, while the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey that year estimated Detroit only had 479,267 voting-age residents, the lawsuit said.

This year, analyzing the city’s official voter registration list from the state roll, Public Interest members “identified records listing years of birth indicating registrants of 105 years of age and older, with some records listing dates of birth in the nineteenth century. According to the foundation’s research, the oldest, active registrant in the city of Detroit was purportedly born in 1823, 14 years before Michigan was admitted to the Union as the 26th state,” according to the suit.

Through more research and further checking of Social Security and other records, the foundation also found “a significant number of deceased registrants whose registrations should have been canceled, but remain registered to vote in Detroit,” the suit reads. 

For example, in a sample of 2,503 voter registrants flagged as likely dead, “(65) percent, or 1,629 registrants, have been deceased for more than 10 years. Of those, 898 registrants have been deceased for more than 15 years, 324 registrants have been deceased for more than 20 years, and 13 have been deceased for more than 25 years,” according to the court document.

When poring over city voters rolls to find identical or closely matching names, addresses and birth dates, “the foundation’s comparison yielded a list of 2,384 entries that are likely duplicates or triplicates," the filing said. “... The defendants have many tools available to conduct list maintenance and, yet, they are failing to reasonably maintain the city of Detroit’s voter rolls."

The Public Interest Legal Foundation launched in 2014 and acts as a law firm that focuses on election administration issues. It's headed by J. Christian Adams, who formerly worked for the U.S. Justice Department's legal section and served on President Donald Trump's advisory commission on election integrity.

Churchwell said there's a private right of action built into the Voting Rights Act that permits the foundation, or others to bring such court action. 

The group has filed lawsuits in Florida, Texas and Mississippi over similar alleged voting roll errors as it found in Detroit. Most have been settled or remain on appeal, he said. 

"This type of lawsuit is very rare," he said. "There's just not a whole lot of case law on it."

Churchwell told The News on Wednesday that the group identified and reported similar voting roll errors to clerk's offices in Flint and Grand Rapids. 

Flint City Clerk Inez Brown said the group requested information this year, but her office hasn't had the resources to complete it, nor the time, due to its focus on elections. 

The city just completed an election in November and has another that's upcoming Jan. 7 as well as the March presidential primary. 

The foundation, she said, is seeking a vast amount of information and for large urban cities, such as Flint and Detroit, "it's not as easy as people may think."

"We all do the best we can do to ensure everything is kept properly, in an orderly way and in accordance with state law," she said. "We're not going to do anything that's going to put the voters' rights in jeopardy."

The foundation, in its Tuesday filing, said it alerted Detroit elections staff of the concerns, corresponded with the office via email and drove out to meet with officials there. 

The foundation sent a letter to Winfrey in the spring, notifying her the city allegedly was in violation of Voting Rights Act, warning of a potential lawsuit to ensure compliance. 

The issues with the city's rolls, Churchwell said, have "lived on for years," and there "doesn't seem to be any effort to address them."

The suit is asking Detroit to implement effective registration list maintenance programs and ensure that ineligible voters are not on the city rolls. 

But the foundation has faced some criticism over a flawed analysis several years ago involving non-citizens listed on voting rolls in Virginia that landed them in litigation. 

Churchwell said public records provided by the state elections office in Virginia for the analysis was "mislabled" and "communicated wrong." A lawsuit filed by certain individuals purported to be non-citizens was settled, and the foundation apologized, he said. 

Bill Ballenger, a long-time political pundit, said "people want clean voter rolls.”

“They don’t want dead wood, they don’t want people with suspicious addresses and suspicious backgrounds on the voter rolls,” he said. “The Republicans are generally more focused on enforcing that kind of regimen than Democrats are, but both sides really don’t want fraudulent people on the voter rolls who might be able to vote.”

The Detroit Clerk’s Office has faced voting-related controversies in recent years.

After the 2016 presidential election, a Wayne County canvass revealed "significant discrepancies" in the number of voters and ballots in 392 Detroit precincts.

The Michigan Bureau of Election "found no evidence of pervasive voter fraud," according to a 24-page audit, but noted that more than half of 136 Detroit precincts had nearly 600 questionable votes, which was reduced to 216 after extensive review.

Poll worker errors in the 2017 general election prevented 20% of reviewed precincts from being recounted.

Winfrey has said the city bought new voting machines and beefed up poll worker training to address the issues.