On Your Side Investigators: Votes cast in 2016 general election tied to vacant homes

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - It was a cold January night, just after two o'clock in the morning, when Birmingham Fire responded to a home in Ensley.  Remnants still visible two years later show the fire ravaged the back of the house. The homeowner says it was a total loss, but luckily, no one was injured.

Since the fire displaced her, the owner says she now lives in Bessemer with family while she tries to move into public housing.

The loss of her home and nearly all of her possessions was certainly a devastating setback, but not one that would prevent her from exercising her right to vote.

The November 2016 general election was nearly two years after the fire.  Records from the Alabama Secretary of State's office show the owner voted in the election using the Birmingham address in Ensley.

The owner says she participated in the local elections too, casting a vote that November in the Jefferson County District Attorney election in which Charles Todd Henderson unseated Brandon Falls, instead of the Bessemer Cutoff District Attorney election, the district in which she resides with family, and where Bill Veitch narrowly lost to Lynneice Washington.

This homeowner was not the only person to vote using an uninhabited home.  An On Your Side Investigation shows that at least 9 people in Birmingham voted in the 2016 general election using properties deemed "vacant house fires" in 2015.

"It's very disconcerting," said Secretary of State John Merrill.  "Obviously, if someone is using a location that's not a primary residence as the place they say they live, then that's very disconcerting. However, there may be extenuating circumstances."

Merrill says his office is committed to making sure that every eligible citizen who wants to be a registered voter, is a registered voter.  During the 2016 general election, more than 3.3 million Alabamians were registered to vote, which was a record high for the state.

"Our goal is to make sure we have the most effective, efficient, secure, and credible voter rolls in the nation," said Merrill.

Merrill's office is currently undertaking a purge process. It happens once every four years after the presidential election.  This process removes people from the voter rolls if: (1) two separate mailings sent by the Secretary of State's office are returned as undeliverable; and (2) that voter has not voted in any election within the past two election cycles.

"We have to make sure those voting rolls are accurate, updated, and complete so someone would not be in a position to attempt to breach that particular firewall," said Merrill.

But, the home in Ensley that burned in 2015 would not be caught by this purge process because the owner voted using that address in 2016, which is within the last two election cycles.

However, this is not the only work done by Merrill and local registrars to update voter rolls. They say the effort is constant.

"Our list is updated every day," said Barry Stephenson, Chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Registrars.  He says more than 450,000 people are registered in Jefferson County alone, and his office removes between 400 and 500 people on a weekly or monthly basis due to death.

"We're always concerned about having the most accurate and up-to-date voter list we can have," Stephenson said.

The constant update requires that information be regularly shared by other agencies, including the Department of Public Health, Board of Pardons and Paroles, and Department of Corrections, as part of the process.

But, despite the constant work to maintain voter rolls, Stephenson and Merrill confirm there is no check on properties to which people are registered to determine whether the homes are habitable, like the house in Ensley that burned in January 2015.

Throughout Birmingham, that means there is no organized check on whether the approximate 600 homes torn down in 2016 serve as addresses for voter registrations that could be, or are, used by citizens to vote in elections.

In order to register to vote, the citizen must be able to receive mail at the property.

"It has to be a specific address where 911 can respond and the post office can deliver mail directly to that address," explained Stephenson.

"Unless the city where the property is located sends us notification [that] this is a noninhabitable (sic) dwelling or dwelling place, we will not remove that person. We can't – we don't have that enforcement power," Stephenson said.

Comparing records of vacant house fires from 2015 with voting activity from the 2016 general election revealed at least 17 vacant properties with voter registrations tied to them; 6 of them are empty lots.  Nine votes were cast using 7 of the properties.

"I can assure you, that is something we will explore," said Merrill, "not in the future, not in the 2018 legislative session, but in the 2017 legislative session."

Merrill will consider a possible mandate requiring that municipalities provide property information to registrars, "like we do from [Department of Corrections], like we do from the Administrative Office of Courts, like we do from the Department of Public Health."

"If we had that information," Merrill explained, "we could take it and compare it against existing addresses where someone is claiming as a primary residence and if there's no property there that could support the livelihood, then we know that's cause for question."

Anyone can report concerns regarding voter fraud to Secretary Merrill at stopvoterfraudnow.com.

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