Are Californians Casting Ballots From the Grave?

Annette Givens holds a photo of her father, John Cenkner, who passed away in 2003. A CBS News investigation of voting records found that he still cast a ballot in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2010.

Annette Givens holds a photo of her father, John Cenkner, who passed away in 2003. A CBS News investigation of voting records found that he still cast a ballot in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2010. (Blair Wells/KQED)

California seems to have a problem with some voters casting ballots even though they’re dead. Take John Cenkner, who died in 2003. Records show he cast a ballot in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2010.

“I was surprised, amazed, and then I was angry about it that someone could use my Dad’s name like that, and vote,” says Cenkner’s daughter, Annette Givens. She lives near Los Angeles’ Northridge neighborhood.

“It makes me angry, because someone is just using his name, and who knows how they’re voting,” says Givens. “He’d be rolling over in his grave, definitely, if he found out they were voting Republican. He was a die-hard Democrat.”

David Goldstein, an investigative reporter with CBS2/KCAL9 in Los Angeles, found Cenkner’s name by cross-checking the voter rolls with death records from the social security administration. His investigation found 265 deceased voters still on the rolls in five Southern California counties — including Los Angeles, and 32 of them had cast ballots in eight elections after they died.

“We found one person who died in 1988, and a vote was cast in her name in the 2014 election,” says Goldstein.

Goldstein’s sleuthing prompted the LA County Board of Supervisors to call for an investigation.

“Since we did the story, a lot of people have called,” Goldstein told me. “They volunteer at the polls, and they talk about names that are in there year after year. They know these people have passed away, and they’ve filed complaints about it. And every election year, the names are still in the books, so clearly they have a ways to go.”

In 2012, NBC Bay Area did a similar investigation looking into deceased voters on the rolls.

So what’s the problem? California is one of the states to lag behind when it comes to the federal Help America Vote Act, which requires states to streamline voter databases. The law passed after the infamous “hanging chad” debacle in Florida back in 2000.

California also has strict rules about removing voters from the rolls to help protect people’s civil rights. Elections officials don’t want to make the mistake of taking someone off the voting rolls who is entitled to vote. But it can also mean that some folks stay on there long after they’ve passed away.

The big question: Who’s signing these dead people’s ballots?

“Was this a family member that voted on behalf of another family member? Was it neighbor who went into a polling place and signed that person’s name, knowing that person was deceased?,” asks Kim Alexander, who heads up the nonprofit, nonpartisan California Voter Foundation. “Those are major crimes. You can be charged with a felony for committing election fraud.”

The California Secretary of State’s office says elections officials do check against death records, and voter fraud like this is very rare.

The idea that there are dead voters on the rolls is shocking, agrees Alexander, but it’s important to put the numbers into context.

“When it comes to elections, we have this attitude that there is no acceptable error rate, that we have to get every election 100 percent perfect,” says Alexander. “When you look at the numbers we’re talking about in LA County — 215 voters out of 4.7 million registered voters in LA — you’re talking about an error rate that’s .0000453 percent.”

Some voters, like Steve Masar, want nothing to do with a dead person’s ballot sent to their address. He lives in Pasadena and got a vote-by-mail ballot about a month ago for the previous owner of his house.

Steve Masar holds a ballot for a woman who used to live at his address in Pasadena. Mary Ellen Parker passed away two years ago.
Steve Masar holds a ballot for a woman who used to live at his address in Pasadena. Mary Ellen Parker passed away two years ago. (Tena Rubio/KQED)

“It was for Mary Ellen Parker, the woman who used to live here,” says Masar, holding up the envelope. “Mary Ellen died two years ago, so we had no idea why this ballot showed up at our house.”

Masar says he wasn’t tempted at all to vote on her behalf.

“I actually didn’t even open it,” he explains. “It’s sitting here just waiting to be returned to the registrar’s office, but Mary Ellen won’t be voting in this election, that’s for sure.”

Tena Rubio of KQED contributed to this report.

Author

Sasha Khokha

Sasha Khokha is the host of The California Report  weekly magazine program, which takes listeners on sound-rich radio excursions around the Golden State.

As The California Report's Central Valley Bureau Chief for nearly a dozen years, Sasha brought the lives and concerns of rural Californians to listeners around the state. Sasha's reporting helped exposed the hidden price immigrant women janitors and farmworkers may pay to keep their jobs: sexual assault at work -- and helped change California law with regard to sexual harassment of farmworkers.  She's won a national PRNDI award for investigative reporting, as well as multiple prizes from the Radio Television News Directors Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

She began her radio career in waterproof overalls, filing stories about the salmon fishery at Raven Radio in Sitka, AK. She has produced and reported for several documentary films. Calcutta Calling, about children adopted from India to Swedish-Lutheran Minnesota, was nominated for an Emmy Award.

Sasha is  a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Brown University, and is the mother of two young children.

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