Fuzzy election math 

Sometimes two plus two isn’t four. Case in point: In May 2004, the Associated Press reported that voter registration in Montana has dropped 11 percent since the 2000 presidential election, from 671,325 registered voters in 2000 to a May 2004 total of 596,251. But Secretary of State Bob Brown’s office reports that the 596,251 figure actually represents a 2.5 percent increase in voter registration since 2000.

So how does 596,251 become 2.5 percent greater than 671,325?

“Back in 2000, we actually had over 100 percent of voters registered in the state,” explains the Secretary of State’s Office Public Information Officer Mike Sullivan. “So obviously that means there’s some kind of issue somewhere.”

Besides natural attrition and Montana’s transient student population, the issue of over-inflated voter registration polls can be traced back to two main sources, he says.

One: The 1993 National Voter Registration Act (which made it easier for people to vote by allowing them to register when getting their driver’s license) put restrictions on how long election offices had to maintain inactive voter registrations before purging them from their voter rolls. Some offices interpreted this restriction to be the span of two presidential elections (eight years), while others interpreted it to be two federal elections (four years).

In 2001, says Sullivan, “there was a big clearing of inactive voter registration because the people on the federal election cycle-interpretation and the people on the presidential election cycle-interpretation were now all clearing voter registrations.”

And secondly, he says, the 2001 Help America Vote Act clarified that the restriction for holding inactive registrations was in fact four years, not eight, “so there was a larger clearing of inactive voters registrations than normal in 2001 after the 2000 elections.”

“So consequently, what we’re seeing is not a drop in registration, but rather an accurate reflection in registration,” adds Sullivan.

In a June 2004 news release, the Secretary of State’s Office states that a conservative estimate of inactive Montana voter registrations dropped since November 2000 comes to about 90,000.

And 671,325 (registered voters in 2000) minus 90,000 inactive registrations arrives at the adjusted total of 581,325—2.5 percent fewer than the May 2004 total of 596,251.

Problem solved.

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