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updated 10/30/2009 9:56:54 AM ET 2009-10-30T13:56:54

Even death can't stop some voters.

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Thanks to the increasing popularity of absentee voting, a rising number of the recently deceased are casting ballots — legally.

The trick is to pull the lever before you kick the bucket.

States such as California, Texas and Florida intentionally count ballots sent in by voters who then died before Election Day, while states such as Colorado, Washington and South Dakota have no reliable method for discarding the votes of the deceased.

In the old days, voting by the dead was reserved for big-city political machines looking to stuff the ballot box illegally.

But the new kind of dead voting is a side effect of the popularity of absentee ballots.

In 32 states, any registered voter can mail in a ballot instead of going to a voting booth on Election Day, according to the Early Voting Information Center. And in 14 other states, they can do so as long as they have a good reason.

Depending on the state, absentee ballots are mailed any time from three weeks before the election, as in Maryland, to 40 days before the election, as in Iowa.

Some of those absentee voters die before Election Day comes around, however.

"This is a pretty small percentage of people," according to Thad Hall, a voting expert at the University of Utah. "There are tens of millions of people who voted by absentee ballot in the presidential election, but there aren't that many people who died right after casting their ballot."

What happens next depends on the state.

In 2008, the state of Hawaii counted Barack Obama’s grandmother's absentee ballot even though she died three days before Election Day.

However, when Hillary Rodham Clinton mentioned in a televised speech that 88-year-old Florence Steen of South Dakota had proudly cast her vote for a female candidate before dying, state elections officials disqualified Steen's vote.

If Steen had been a Florida resident when she sent in her ballot, her vote would have been counted.

Under Florida elections law, as long as the ballot was postmarked or received by the elections office, it doesn’t matter whether the voter "dies on or before Election Day."

Voting statutes in states like Colorado prevent the deceased from voting simply because the rules prohibit "unqualified" individuals from participating.

"There are qualifications to being a registered voter," said Rich Coolidge, the communications director for the Colorado’s secretary of state. "I don't know if [the statute] mentions if you have to have a heartbeat or what."

Still, Colorado may have dead voters anyway.

The state determines whether the voter is alive during the early days of voter registration. In Colorado, elections officials can start preparing ballots for tabulation 15 days before the election, which means they can verify the signatures on the outside envelope of the ballot match the signature on file.

During this process, a red flag will pop up if the Colorado Department of Health has reported that the individual died, but that leaves a narrow window for some ballots of those who die shortly before Election Day to be counted.

Similar systems are set up in Washington and South Dakota, which crosscheck absentee voters with a list of the deceased sent from the state department of health. Still, some ballots are received after the check.

That led to contested ballots in Seattle after the 2004 governor's election. Lists of the city’s dead are only sent out three times a year, but the local Republican Party conducted its own check and found a number of instances of deceased absentee voters.

By then, it can be too late. After the early check, Colorado officials separate the ballot from the envelope — making it impossible to retrieve.

Colorado's elections director compared the situation to criminal defendants who have not had a trial yet.

"If a person is sitting in jail awaiting trial, they can still cast a mail ballot," Coolidge said. "Mail ballots go out 21 days before the election. They could be convicted of a felony a day before the election, making them unqualified. But the vote is already separated."

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on Congress.org.

CQ © 2009 All Rights Reserved | Congressional Quarterly Inc. 1255 22nd Street N.W. Washington, D.C. 20037 | 202-419-8500

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