Allegheny County is now the subject of a federal lawsuit over its apparent failures to keep voter rolls in clean shape. Like a similar case against Detroit, the initial facts raised in Pittsburgh depict an unacceptable picture for a state which will likely again help determine the outcome of the 2020 Presidential Election with a close finish.

U.S. and Pennsylvania laws set standards for how election officials must keep voter registration records current and reliable. The rules are straightforward: remove the deceased; cancel the snowbird-turned-Floridians; and, if all else fails—keep a list of registrants whose addresses have gone bad and silent on all fronts. County officials in Pittsburgh were clearly missing opportunities to meet those standards, based on the evidence presented.

A federal lawsuit filed this week lays out startling numbers. Among “active” registrants, more than 1,580 are dead, many for several decades now. Nearly 7,500 records were flagged for duplicate, triplicate, quadruplicate, and even septuplicate concerns. Thousands are registered more than once under their same names, birthdates, and addresses. At least 1,300 registrants are missing critical information—like when they actually registered to vote or when they were born. The evidence even cites an example of someone claiming a birth year in “June 1800” despite the fact they registered in 2008. The lawsuit even referenced an emerging trend of registrants landing on the Allegheny County voter roll without providing an in-state address.

A federal lawsuit filed this week lays out startling numbers. Among “active” registrants, more than 1,580 are dead, many for several decades now.

Voter registration lawsuits like the one brought this week are relatively new to the scene. They are not “voter fraud” cases. Candidates who feel wronged by an election outcome might allege fraud in court. This Allegheny County case, however, puts local officials in the hot seat–not registrants. The bulk of evidence raised thus far suggests that Allegheny County registrants are not even the primary causes for the errors.

There are some things that are uniquely broken in Pennsylvania. Duplication of voter registration can happen elsewhere, but several other states have established internal systems of checks and balances to address the problem without outside pressure to do the right thing. When a person can be registered seven times from an out-of-state voter drive—warning sirens should blare—especially under the threat of foreign interference.

 This lawsuit represents—in the most concrete way possible—that our elections officials be held accountable to taking all reasonable steps to uphold the one person, one vote principle. Few concepts are more integral to the health of our republic.

Before the lawsuit was filed, federal law required the data findings be shared with Allegheny County officials to create an opportunity to implement procedural fixes. The Public Interest Legal Foundation held several formal discussions with the now-defendants prior to filing suit, but common ground could not be found.

Indeed, offers to simply remove dead registrants and merge duplicated registrants into a single file inadequately addresses the county’s significant administrative failures. Pennsylvania has long held procedures to clean rolls of such things as a point of fact. The evidence in this case, however, suggests house rules are not being followed. Still worse, errors are often created within the walls of voter registrar’s office.

Why make a federal case out of specific voter registration failures? Because Pennsylvania is rapidly starting to show electoral outcome characteristics similar to Florida. Partisan lines have deepened, and election results have tightened. That environment makes any effort to prod or manipulate the voter registration system in ways U.S. intelligence services warn about all the more feasible. The best target for a Russian cyber saboteur is an elections office that won’t be able to quickly differentiate between pre-existing negligence and fresh damage—especially under the glare of the media spotlight scrutinizing their every move. This is precisely the kind of chaos our enemies seek to perpetrate to sow discord and delegitimize our democratic institutions.

A successful lawsuit in Allegheny County will deliver two things. First, the cited flaws within the voter registration list will be addressed head-on. Second, the federal courts will help to establish guardrails, so these types of problems do not arise again. This lawsuit represents—in the most concrete way possible—that our elections officials be held accountable to taking all reasonable steps to uphold the one person, one vote principle. Few concepts are more integral to the health of our republic.

Logan Churchwell is the Communications and Research Director for the Public Interest Legal Foundation.

Linda A. Kerns, a co-founder of Broad + Liberty, represents the Public Interest Legal Foundation.  She is the lead attorney on the case discussed in this article.   

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