Earlier this year, the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a nonprofit law firm founded to “fight lawlessness in American elections,” issued a report with what, on the surface, looked like alarming statistics: according to US census data, in 141 counties, across 21 states, the number of people registered to vote far outnumbered residents who were eligible to vote—in some cases, very far. In Franklin County, Illinois, for example, voter rolls outnumbered eligible voters by 90 percent. In other words, if you are registered to vote in Franklin County, there is a good chance that you are dead, or don’t live there anymore.
There’s no actual law against these imbalances—federal election law prevents counties from removing voters from the rolls without confirming that they aren’t actually ineligible. But PILF is nevertheless threatening to sue the counties if they don’t clean up their books. Claiming that their report’s findings are so egregious that they constitute a threat to the integrity of the country’s elections, PILF argues that the counties are violating a section of 1993’s National Voter Registration Act, which requires local officials to make reasonable efforts to remove dead or ineligible voters from their rolls.
All this hue and cry is a little shrill, and it’s unlikely that PILF’s legal haranguing will actually come to anything. But the problem the group points out is real, and widespread. And while these ghost voters may not pose the existential threat that PILF suggests, they are signs of a systemically bad bureaucracy that has the potential to cripple the democratic process nationwide.