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With Mail Ballots More Important During Covid-19, Improper Voter Purges Can Do Even More Damage

What happened in Iowa shows how Americans can be disenfranchised.

May 8, 2020
ballot box
Megan Jelinger/Getty

As the coronavirus pandemic contin­ues, elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors across the coun­try are moving to expand mail voting options for upcom­ing votes. For example, Iowa has begun send­ing absentee ballot request forms for the June primary to active voters.

This policy will make it easier for voters to cast a ballot by mail, but improper voter roll purges mean that not all voters will receive a ballot request form. That’s because in Iowa, people with past convic­tions aren’t allowed to vote, and until this year, the state used error-riddled convic­tion data for kick­ing eligible voters off the rolls.

Although the state has adop­ted a plan to reduce the risk of future errors, it does not have a plan to notify and assist voters who were erro­neously removed. 

Iowa’s mistakes are part of a larger story: purges based on faulty crim­inal history data continue to threaten eligible voters nation­wide. In 2000, for example, Flor­ida elec­tion offi­cials removed thou­sands of voters from the rolls based on an error-filled list of voters who were supposedly ineligible due to felony convic­tions. Alarm­ingly, one study found that Flor­id­a’s list contained mistakes that dispro­por­tion­ately targeted African-Amer­ican voters for removal from the rolls. Some Flor­ida elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors even refused to use the list because of its extreme inac­curacies. Six years later, Arkan­sas incor­rectly flagged almost 4,000 voters for removal from the rolls due to a felony convic­tion — yet not one indi­vidual had been convicted of a felony.

The stakes in Iowa are espe­cially high because it is the last state in the coun­try with a policy of perman­ently and categor­ic­ally banning those with past convic­tions from voting. If it is going to main­tain such a draconian policy, Iowa has a special respons­ib­il­ity to admin­is­ter it in a way that does­n’t also ensnare eligible voters.

Last year, a Des Moines Register invest­ig­a­tion revealed seri­ous flaws in Iowa’s data­base of indi­vidu­als with felony convic­tions who were barred from voting. Accord­ing to the invest­ig­a­tion, some voters removed from the rolls had actu­ally not been convicted of felon­ies. Some Iowans repor­ted never receiv­ing a noti­fic­a­tion that they were kicked off the rolls.

Those prob­lems bumped up against federal and state law. The National Voter Regis­tra­tion Act (also known as the “motor voter” law) regu­lates how states manage their voter regis­tra­tion rolls. For example, it requires states to main­tain “accur­ate and current” rolls and  mandates that any activ­it­ies that states conduct to remove voters must be “uniform [and] nondis­crim­in­at­ory.” Further­more, Iowa law requires a voter whose regis­tra­tion is cancelled because of a felony convic­tion be given notice, which should have provided yet another layer of protec­tion.

Three main prob­lem­atic policies contrib­uted to the removal of eligible voters in Iowa. First, bad data that misid­en­ti­fied felony convic­tions was making its way from the courts to county elec­tion offi­cials. One offi­cial summed up this process as a “garbage in, garbage out” approach, but insisted that the secret­ary of state’s office was just a “pass through,” and there­fore not respons­ible.

Second, the state was taking a decent­ral­ized approach — asking county offi­cials to identify and correct errors arising from state lists — instead of stem­ming the flow of inac­cur­ate inform­a­tion from the sources.

And third, counties were using weak criteria to compare those who had reportedly commit­ted felon­ies with the list of eligible voters, result­ing in false posit­ive matches. The secret­ary of state’s office even acknow­ledged to county audit­ors that these matches were based on “minimal inform­a­tion,” such as a voter’s first name and date of birth. When limited criteria are used, there is a risk the match may be inac­cur­ate and result in the wrong­ful removal of an eligible voter from the rolls.  

After months of advocacy, thanks in part to the League of Women Voters of Iowa, Secret­ary of State Paul Pate intro­duced a strategy and adop­ted an admin­is­trat­ive rule aimed at ensur­ing these errors don’t happen again. County regis­trars are now required to send a notice of removal to a voter’s address by forward­able mail, which will hope­fully make the notice more likely to get into the voter’s hands.

He also adop­ted a rule govern­ing the purge process. It requires his office to review a convic­tion record and determ­ine that a crime was in fact a felony before adding an indi­vidual to the list of those to be removed and passing on the inform­a­tion to county elec­tion offi­cials.

Pate also commit­ted to review all past cases before Elec­tion Day this Novem­ber and confirm whether those who have been disen­fran­chised were prop­erly removed from the rolls.

Although these are good initial steps, there are addi­tional improve­ments that the secret­ary’s office should imple­ment to ensure that faulty crim­inal history data does­n’t result in wrong­fully purged voters.

First, Iowa should use stronger match­ing criteria. The new rule simply requires county regis­trars to review poten­tial matches based on four criteria, but does not actu­ally require these admin­is­trat­ors to match the first name, last name, date of birth, and social secur­ity number of a voter with a felony convic­tion to the same criteria found in the state’s voter regis­tra­tion data­base. If elec­tion offi­cials continue to use weak match­ing criteria, eligible voters can again get caught up in these purges.

Second, Pate should provide notice to all those who were erro­neously removed in the past and help them to re-register. He has commit­ted to the time-intens­ive review of thou­sands of cases and should take the relat­ively minimal next steps to fix any mistakes that the office iden­ti­fies during the coming months. Without provid­ing notice and an oppor­tun­ity to re-register for voters, eligible voters who were purged improp­erly will not receive an absentee ballot request form for the upcom­ing state primary and may be disen­fran­chised.

Further, as Iowa moves to expand absentee voting, the state should proact­ively provide absentee ballot request forms to both active and inact­ive voters to ensure those erro­neously removed have an oppor­tun­ity to request and cast a ballot that counts this June.

Iowa already has Elec­tion Day regis­tra­tion and indi­vidu­als who aren’t on the rolls may cast provi­sional ballots at the polls. Iowa should ensure that there are fail-safe options that allow people who were erro­neously purged to vote, includ­ing to cast their ballots by mail. Indeed, this is some­thing that every state should do.