Lake Co. clerk swamped with fraudulent voter registration forms

Published: 10/17/2008 1:41 PM | Updated: 10/17/2008 6:08 PM

An "unprecedented volume" of voter registration forms are coming into the Lake County clerk's office with fictitious or incorrect information, officials announced Friday.

More than 1,000 voter-registration requests have been submitted with addresses that don't exist or for people who don't live at the addresses given, county clerk Willard Helander said.

One even had information for a local resident's dead goldfish, she said; another bore the name of a pet dog.

"This is unprecedented," Helander said during the afternoon news conference. "We've got a serious problem."

She blamed the deluge of questionable forms on the nationwide interest in the Nov. 4 election. And, she warned the number of forms with false or suspicious information could create doubt about the results of any close race on Election Day.

"If somebody wins or loses by a little bit, I think they have a basis (to contest results)," Helander said. "Hopefully the winners win big."

Most of the flagged applications connected to addresses on the county's east side, Helander said. Towns on the list include Waukegan, North Chicago, Beach Park, Park City and Zion, said Todd Govain, the county's supervisor of voter registration. Other suspicious forms came from Buffalo Grove, Lindenhurst and Round Lake, he said.

Helander has reported the matter, which she said compromises the voter registration process, to the Lake County sheriff and state's attorney. She also plans to notify the Illinois and U.S. attorney general's offices, the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI.

The state's attorney's and sheriff's offices will work together to investigate the circumstances behind each voter registration form, said Meg Marcouiller, chief deputy state's attorney for the civil division. She did not know how long the investigation would last.

"It's a process that will take some time," she said.

Helander's staff discovered the first suspicious registration forms in August. They came to light while employees were checking addresses on the forms as part of the regular registration process, she said.

Addresses are checked to prevent voters from registering more than once, and to see if a voter already in the system has moved to a new address, Helander explained.

The suspicious applications came to the clerk's office from different sources.

Hundreds were hand-delivered by a man from Chicago who'd worked on voter-registration drives. Helander declined to identify the man Friday, but said she's turned over his name to investigators.

They included addresses that had Lake County ZIP codes but actually were in Chicago, Govain said. Others bore signatures in the same handwriting but different names.

"There was a lot of weird stuff going on," he said.

Other suspicious forms were mailed to homes by the Voter Participation Center, a project run by a Washington D.C. group called Women's Voices, Women Vote, the forms themselves indicate.

According to its Web site, the center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization "dedicated to increasing the voice of unmarried Americans" by encouraging them to register and vote.

Those forms included pre-printed personal information, including names, birth dates and partial Social Security Numbers, Helander said.

Many forms generated by the group and received by the clerk's office were legitimate, Helander said, while many others included incorrect information. Some were mailed to people at addresses where they didn't live, Helander said; some were mailed to dead people; others were mailed to pets.

Some forms were sent to the clerk's office by concerned residents, Helander said.

The information for those mailings were gathered from commercial data the organization purchased, Women's Voices spokeswoman Sarah Johnson said. It originated from telephone books, warrantees, newspaper subscriptions and other sources, she said.

Anyone on the list who's not a registered voter got a card, Johnson said. Animals get registration cards because pet owners sometimes sign up for magazines or other services using the pet names, she said.

"We have a very sophisticated matching process, but no list process is 100 percent," Johnson said.

She denied any intention to defraud the voter-registration process.

"We're trying to be as transparent as possible," she said.

Concerns about voter-registration efforts have arisen elsewhere in the nation this election season. Republican presidential candidate John McCain has blasted a Nevada-based community activist group that's being investigated on suspicion of submitting false registration cards, some with the names of cartoon characters, in other states.

Helander said she had no evidence that group has been active in Lake County or is responsible for the forms her office uncovered. Helander, a Republican, also said the local cases did not appear to be tied to any political party.

Election departments in Cook, DuPage and McHenry counties reported no similar problems Friday.

"Whoever is doing it is not organized in DuPage," said Bob Saar, director of the county's election commission. Cook County Clerk David Orr said his agency has had similar problems in the past, but none this year.

Helander said the people responsible for the false information took advantage of the voter-registration process, which she said had very little security and needs tighter controls.

She called for a tracking system that would allow election officials to more easily verify the validity of an application.

"We need to know that every vote that's counted is a bona fide vote," she said.

Daily Herald Staff Writers Madhu Krishnamurthy and Joseph Ryan contributed to this report.