Meet Michigan’s ‘dead’ voters. They’re quite alive, despite false fraud claims
LANSING — Donna Brydges is very much alive and playing cribbage with her husband in their home near Ludington. June Aiken of Napoleon Township is “alive and well” too — “quite well, in fact,” according to police. Same goes for William Bradley of Detroit, whose father of the same name died decades ago.
You wouldn't know it from social media, where supporters of President Donald Trump last week alleged voter fraud as they falsely claimed proof that Brydges, Aiken, Bradley and other Michiganders were dead but had cast ballots in the Nov. 3 election.
Like many false fraud claims that have spread online in the last week, officials say the accusations were triggered by a series of isolated data input errors by some of Michigan's 1,603 local and county election clerks.
In Michigan, clerks and their election workers enter voter and ballot information in a statewide database known as the Qualified Voter File. And yes, they occasionally make mistakes, as they do in every election before they are eventually caught and rectified.
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Consider the case of Brydges: She is 75 years old, but the Qualified Voter File listed her birthdate as Jan. 1, 1901, which would have made her 119 years old, an unlikely age that fueled the pro-Trump claim that dead voters had cast ballots here.
In reality, 1/1/1901 was a default date likely used when the township first transferred paper registration records into the computer system years ago, Hamlin Township Clerk Catherine Lewis told Bridge Michigan.
Placeholder dates are "occasionally used if a registration exists but the exact birthday of the voter is not known by the local clerk," added Tracy Wimmer, a spokesperson for Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.
When Brydges became a central figure in the internet conspiracy theory, officials checked her driver's license records and confirmed that she was born in 1945.
Would-be internet sleuths had already plastered her name across the internet, however, after one filmed themselves looking her up in the state's online Michigan Voter Information Center, which showed she was born in 1901 and had cast an absentee ballot.
Brydges is alive, properly applied for an absentee ballot, provided her state-issued driver license with that application and returned her ballot in a properly signed and sealed envelope, said Lewis, who expressed confidence that "nothing improper occurred."
"I would also note that the voter is personally known to me as a township resident, and that there is no provision of Michigan law that would invalidate an absentee ballot based on a typographical error in the state's qualified voter database," said Lewis, a Republican.
Bridge Michigan was not able to reach Brydges for this story, but The Associated Press talked to her by phone last week. She confirmed her identity and passed the phone to her husband, who also verified his wife was alive: “She’s actually beat me in a game of cribbage,” he said.
A similar clerical error was discovered in Jackson County’s Napoleon Township, where Trump supporters claimed a woman born in 1900 had improbably voted in the presidential election, pointing to an online obituary for a local woman with the same first and last name.
But that obituary was for a June Aiken with a different middle name, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. Again, a placeholder birthdate may have been used in the Qualified Voter File for a woman whose driver’s license shows she was born in 1926.
June A. Aiken is "a regular voter, and there is no evidence she has died," Wimmer said.
In fact, local police investigated the matter after it was flagged by Napoleon Township Deputy Clerk Mary LaRocque.
"To the best of our records, we have only one ballot filed under the name June Aiken," said Deputy Police Chief Matt Peters, who told Bridge he spoke with the voter directly. "She's 94-years old, alive and well. Quite well actually."
While the investigation is technically not yet closed, “there's no evidence at this point of any fraud or any intent to defraud the system at all,” Peters told Bridge. The living June Aiken appears to have married into the family of the deceased June Aiken, he said.
The errors don't prove fraud, but they do point to flaws in the state’s Qualified Voter File. As of this summer, a Bridge review showed there were more than 16,000 people listed in the database with a birth date of 1920 or earlier, including Gabriel Konowich of Flint, born in 1892; he died before 2010, according to a sibling’s obituary.
Konowich was among a series of dead Michiganders who received an absentee voter application this year, fueling speculation that Benson’s push for mail-in voting could open the door to fraud.
Benson, a Democrat who mailed the applications en masse, has argued that returned mail actually can help Michigan clean up its records by alerting clerks of change of address or other life circumstances.
That cleanup doesn't appear to have happened yet, at least not to any great extent. As of last week, the Qualified Voter File still listed 15,249 voters with birth dates that would make them at least 100 years old, including 143 people from 1850, before the Civil War. Of those, 567 had a listed birthdate of 1900 and another 113 listed 1901, suggesting there may be other placeholder birth dates still in the file.
About 3,400 of the questionable records — 22 percent of the statewide total — are for voters in Detroit, which has about 7 percent of the state's total population.
Bridge Michigan randomly checked records for 10 of those people, and there is no indication any of them cast ballots last week.
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CNN fact checkers examined records for 50 Michiganders whose names appeared on a list of allegedly dead voters that was circulated online this week. They also found no evidence of fraud: 37 of the people are dead but had not voted, five are alive and did vote and eight others are alive but did not vote.
The Trump campaign continues to amplify the claims, however. Monday, in three separate fundraising emails, the campaign alleged without evidence that the Biden campaign "wants ballots counted" even if they are from "deceased voters."
In Detroit, both internet sleuths and Clerk Janice Winfrey’s office appear to have confused 61-year-old William Bradley with his father, who died 36 years ago but had lived at the same address and had the same name, aside from a different middle name.
"118-year-old William Bradley voted via an absentee ballot in Wayne County, Michigan this year," Ryan Fourner, founder of Students for Trump, wrote in Facebook post shared more than 14,000 times. "William died in 1984. They’re trying to steal this election."
In reality, there were two William Bradleys in the Qualified Voter File registered at the same address in Detroit, according to the Department of State. It appears a local elections worker incorrectly recorded an absentee ballot cast by the younger Bradley as one cast by the elder, an error that has since been corrected.
"The most likely explanation is that a ballot submitted by the 1959 Bradley was accidentally recorded as being received from the 1902 Bradley," said Wimmer, a spokesperson for the Department of State.
The younger Bradley confirmed his identity in a phone call with POLITIFACT, telling the fact-checking organization that he proactively called the City of Detroit after his name popped up in the online conspiracy theory.
Michigan has processes in place to reject ballots from dead voters, even those who properly voted by absentee ballot but then died before Election Day, Wimmer told Bridge.
"On rare occasions, a ballot received for a living voter may be recorded in a way that makes it appear as if the voter is dead. This can be because of voters with similar names ... or because of inaccurately recorded birth dates in the qualified voter file," she said.
"In such scenarios, no one ineligible has actually voted, and there is no impact on the outcome of the election. Local clerks can correct the issue when it is brought to their attention."
— Bridge reporter Mike Wilkinson contributed to this story
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