MOUNT DESERT — The next time you hear that voter turnout for a given election was dismally low, you might want to take it with a grain of salt.
When the number of names on a town’s official voter registration list exceeds the total number of voting-age residents, you know something is off. That’s the case in Mount Desert.
Of the town’s 1,855 registered voters, only 176 cast ballots in the May 2 municipal election, a turnout rate of 9.5 percent. But the town had only 1,976 year-round residents in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s estimate. That number includes every child under the voting age of 18.
This year, Mount Desert Elementary School has 198 students, most of whom live in Mount Desert. Another 69 Mount Desert residents attend MDI High School, and most of them are under 18. Add to those the children who are too young to go to school, and the total is about 350.
That means there are fewer voting age adults in Mount Desert than there are registered voters.
Bar Harbor’s 2014 population, according to the Census Bureau estimate, was 5,308, with 17 percent of those residents being under 18. So, the number of voting age adults was about 4,390.
But as of mid-April, there were 4,291 names on Bar Harbor’s voter registration list. As with Mount Desert, the numbers don’t seem right.
The discrepancies can be explained in part by the fact that people who have died may still be on the official voter registration list. And there are others who registered to vote at some point but have since moved away.
Claire Woolfolk, Mount Desert’s town clerk and registrar of voters, said the Maine secretary of state’s office automatically notifies towns when one of their voters moves to another municipality and registers to vote there. When that happens, the person is taken off the registration list in the town they left. But if someone moves away and doesn’t register to vote somewhere else, they remain on the voter list.
The state’s Central Voter Registration System has a vital records function that automatically searches death records for registered voters. When a match is found, the town in which the person was registered is notified. Registrars also may use obituaries, which include date of birth and date of death, to verify that a voter has died and can be removed from the voter list.
People cannot be purged from a town’s voter registration list just because they haven’t voted in a long time, according to Heidi Peckham, an elections coordinator in the secretary of state’s office.
She said that if a registrar thinks that someone who hasn’t voted in a while might no longer live in town, the registrar can send a change of address confirmation card. If the card isn’t returned, the person remains classified as an “active” voter.
“But if the card comes back as undeliverable, which likely indicates they don’t live there anymore, the registrar can’t take them off the registration list, but they can change their status to inactive,” Peckham said. “What that means is that, if they don’t vote in the state’s next two general elections [which are held every two years], then they will be removed from the list of registered voters.”
Peckham said the state has laws that establish very strict criteria for removing people from voter registration lists.
“These laws are in place to protect voters and to ensure that no one is ever removed [from a voter list] without an absolute confirmed source,” she said.