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An Indianapolis-based advocacy group issued a news release Sept. 25 with a stunning headline: "24 states show corrupted voter rolls."
"Voter fraud begins with corrupted voter rolls," said J. Christian Adams, president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation. "Our nation’s voter rolls have records that cannot be distinguished between living or dead; citizen or alien; resident or relocated. We hear about possible cyber-attacks, but we aren’t doing enough to fix voter rolls that are certainly corrupt."
The Public Interest Legal Foundation, which aims to keep voter rolls as up-to-date as possible, had sent letters to nearly 250 counties. Bryan County was among them.
The group’s letter to county elections supervisor Cindy Reynolds said, "Based on our research, your jurisdiction is in apparent violation of Section 8 of the National Voter Registration Act." It explained that the letter was the required statutory notice "prior to the commencement of any lawsuit."
The county’s key problem, according to the foundation, was that it had "significantly more voters on the registration roles than it has eligible, living citizen voters."
In this fact-check, we looked at whether Bryan County’s voter rolls are corrupted, as the news release charged.
The short answer is that the situation in Bryan County is cleaner than the foundation would have us believe. The fact is, maintaining the voter rolls in Georgia is an ongoing process and the foundation counted names on the Bryan County list that were flagged for possible removal.
Foundation spokesman Logan Churchwell told us that his group relied on the latest federal survey from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. That spreadsheet showed 20,285 active voters and 5,622 inactive ones in Bryan County on the rolls for the November 2016 election.
What are inactive voters? People who haven’t voted in the past two elections, have been sent a letter to confirm their registration and haven’t responded to that letter.
The foundation added the two groups and reported a total of 25,907 voters.
It then compared that to the number of county residents age 18 and older. Using the latest Census figures, that was 25,643.
Not all of them would necessarily be eligible to vote, but "that gives the county the maximum benefit of the doubt," Churchwell said.
With 264 more names on the rolls than the total of potentially eligible voters, the foundation included Bryan County on its list of those with corrupted voter rolls.
Including the inactive voters is essential to that finding. The problem evaporates based on active voters. Judged against that, there are 5,358 fewer names on the rolls than the total potentially eligible population.
Churchwell defended his group’s methods, saying "all a person on the inactive list needs to do is respond and like that, they are back on the rolls." The county can’t "pretend they aren’t there," he added.
The relationship between voter rolls and residents is constantly in flux. Many people move away and some die, to give the two biggest factors. The same survey used by the foundation gives a glimpse into how election officials try to keep up.
Importantly for this fact-check, it also shows what the size of the inactive list can tell us about changes in the active voter rolls.
The foundation counted all inactive voters, but there’s good reason to question that.
In Georgia, the state maintains the voter rolls, not the counties.
Between 2014 and 2016, the state sent 4,323 letters asking people in Bryan County to confirm their voting status.
In the same period, the state removed 2,579 names.
Put another way, take about 60 percent of the inactive total and you get the number of names that will be dropped. Apply that to the 2,622 on the November 2016 inactive list and you’d expect that 1,542 names would drop from the rolls.
That alone would put the number of voters below the number of potentially eligible voters by about 1,200.
In fact, Bryan County election supervisor Reynolds said the state cut 2,934 names from the rolls as of September 2017. The state was more aggressive than it had been over the past two years.
"This is a regular process by the Secretary of State provided by Georgia laws to ensure that our rolls are as accurate as possible," Reynolds said in a statement.
We wondered how often the group’s assertions led to successful lawsuits.
Churchwell told us that in 2015, his group targeted 141 counties. Of those, they brought legal action against eight, resulting in one settlement and two consent decrees to improve roll maintenance practices.
The Public Interest Legal Foundation said Bryan County had corrupted voter rolls because it had more voters registered than the eligible population in the county. The foundation relied on the number of voters listed as inactive to reach that conclusion.
That is a worst-case approach that does not account for the reality of voter roll maintenance in Georgia. Based on all the data, there’s no evidence that the Bryan County rolls are corrupted. The group took a number that reflected an effort to keep the voter rolls current and used it to cast the county in a bad light.
The foundation used data selectively and ignored ongoing efforts to clean up the voter rolls to reach an exaggerated conclusion.
We rate this claim False.
Public Interest Legal Foundation, 24 States Show Corrupted Voter Rolls, Sept. 25, 2017
U.S. Election Assistance Commission, Datasets, codebooks and surveys, accessed Oct. 3, 2017
U.S. Census Bureau, Population – Bryan County, Ga, July 1, 2016
Bryan County Board of Elections and Registration, Letter, Sept. 26, 2017
Georgia Secretary of State, Voter registration statistics, Sept. 1, 2017
Savannah Morning News, Bryan County accused of having too many voters, Sept. 26, 2017
Bryan County News, County accused of voter registration irregularities, Sept. 26, 2017
Interview, Logan Churchwell, spokesman, Public Interest Legal Foundation, Oct. 3, 2017
Email interview, Cindy Reynolds, election supervisor, Bryan County, Sept. 29, 2017
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