PHOTO/DAVID MARSHALL FLEMING: These participants in Reno's 2015 Zombie Crawl are allowed to vote in Washoe County only if they are registered (and still breathing). Photo courtesy of Reno Crawls.

There is no evidence that a single Washoe County corpse voted by mail in Nevada’s 2020 election — or, in person, for that matter.

By cross-checking Social Security death records against the names on more than 80 blank mail-in ballots returned to Washoe County as “undeliverable/no longer at this address,” the Reno News & Review found just one deceased person who remained on the county’s rolls as an “active voter.” The ballot in the name of that person, an 89-year-old Reno man who died in 2016, was returned to the registrar unopened, records show.

The facts: he was dead, a ballot was inadvertently sent to his registration address, but the ballot was never filled out or signed by anyone.

The scores of other names checked by the RN&R – people whose mail ballots were returned as undeliverable and who didn’t subsequently update their addresses — belonged to people who had moved from their registration addresses. An internet search revealed that some of those people now are listed at other addresses in Nevada. Some are listed as residents in other states. All are still breathing, according to the search results.

None of them cast ballots in Washoe County in 2020 either, according to public records from the registrar’s office.

“Here’s this very partisan race, with all these claims of fraud being made even before the voting takes place, and (the newspaper) can’t find an example (in Washoe County),” said Michael Green, associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  “That’s significant. That says something about how well-run our whole voting process was in Nevada.”

Fraud allegations unsubstantiated

The newspaper’s unscientific survey of the voter list was conducted in the wake of allegations of widespread election fraud in Nevada made, without evidence, by the Trump campaign and other Republicans a few days after the election. They alleged that thousands of fraudulent ballots were counted in Clark County, including votes cast by dead people.

“There are hundreds of dead people who voted in Clark County,” said Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, at a televised press event Nov. 8. He offered as proof two names of people who died in 2017 and who apparently cast mail-in ballots in Southern Nevada. It remains to be seen if intentional fraud was involved in either of those cases.


Former Clark County residents Fred Stokes Jr. and Rosemarie Hartle, both of whom died in 2017, were mailed ballots, according to the Clark County Registrar’s office. In one case, according to the Los Angeles Times, the deceased man’s daughter signed her dad’s ballot but did not vote herself. In the other example, the signature on the ballot appears to match the dead voter’s exemplar. Those cases remain under investigation, county officials said.

No further examples cited

Neither Schlapp nor Adam Laxalt, former Nevada attorney general and co-chairman of the Trump campaign in Nevada, offered any evidence to back up the “hundreds of dead people” allegation. Instead, reporters present at the televised press event were told to “ask the Clark County registrar” for proof of widespread fraud.

It’s unknown why the name of the deceased Reno man remained on the Washoe County active voters list for four years. But a county official said a constant effort is made to purge the list of the names of voters who die.

Mail-in ballots were not forwarded by the Post Office. They were returned to the registrar’s office when they were undeliverable to the addressee.

County cross-checks death notices

Heather Carmen, Washoe County’s assistant registrar of voters, said her office checks data received from the Social Security Administration against its voter list. “List maintenance projects also provide deceased voter information, however it is not 100%,” she said. “We (also) rely on administrators of the decedent’s estate to inform us that the voter has passed away.”

Carmen said the office continues to send election mail to the last known addresses on its voter list. “If we do not receive a response back that the person has passed, then they stay on the voting rolls.” Undeliverable election mail puts the voter into an “inactive” status, but does not remove them from the list.

Between June 1 and November, 270 voters were purged from Washoe County’s list after their deaths were confirmed, she said. A total of 2,575 others were removed from the rolls between elections. In the 2020 General Election, records show that 12,202 blank ballots were returned as undeliverable. Some of those residents later updated their addresses and were able to vote, the data indicate. In its random survey, the newspaper only checked the names of people who records indicated had not updated their addresses.

“Post-Election is when we are able to do a more extensive list maintenance because we have federal laws that won’t allow certain voter list-maintenance projects to take place 90 days before an election,” Carmen said. “We can still cancel (or place voters into inactive status), but we just can’t do larger projects 90 days before Election Day.”

Clark County also receives death data

Clark County has similar procedures. Officials last week issued a statement explaining how the registrar’s office purges the rolls of deceased voters: “We receive information through the Secretary of State’s Office from the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) and State Vital Records. ERIC collects information from the Social Security Administration’s death master file; DMVs and voter registration files from 30 states plus Washington, DC; and the (United States Postal Service’s) National Change of Address Database.

“We receive information from the Secretary of State’s Office weekly, and sometimes more often.”

Green, the UNLV history professor, said allegations of corruption in Nevada’s elections have sometimes hinged on the buying of votes rather than dead voters. He said historians have questioned the role of vote-buying in a primary election for the U.S. Senate in the 1944 race between Pat McCarran and Dale Pittman.

“There were remarks made by the McCarran campaign that suggested paying people off in West Las Vegas,” he said. “But in terms of dead voters, no, nothing significant about that has ever come up in Nevada.”

Memento mori, y’all

Elsewhere in the country, New York Herald Tribune reporter Earl Mazo unearthed evidence that deceased people voted for John F. Kennedy in Chicago in 1960. JFK’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, also was dogged by similar allegations after he won a 1948 Congressional primary in Texas, Green said.

Lyndon Johnson

 “That was a race that Johnson won by 87 votes,” he said. “LBJ himself joked about a boy seen crying after the primary and who was asked why he was so sad. The boy said that his father was dead, but the questioner knew that the boy’s father had died five years prior. ‘Yes,’ the boy said, ‘but I found out he just voted for Lyndon Johnson.’”

Green said isolated incidents of voter fraud involving deceased people could have occurred in any vote-by-mail election. For example, a resident who received a ballot addressed to a dead relative could sign and return it. If the relative was adept at imitating the dead person’s signature, the ballot might not be detected by a registrar’s signature-comparison system.

‘Print the legend’

But he said that the current allegations of systemic voter fraud in Nevada are flimsy and consistently have been made without evidence. Still, he said, even after all the charges are debunked, the unsubstantiated claims probably will be repeated in some quarters for a long time.

That persistence of misinformation reminds Green of a quote from the movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” he said: “’When the legend replaces fact, print the legend.’ Legends always are more interesting than facts to a lot of people.”

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