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A Muddied Victory for Iowa’s Voters

A commission moved forward on online voter registration last week, but missed an opportunity to fully modernize the state’s election system. The Iowa Legislature should pick up where the commission left off.

  • Jennifer L. Clark
January 6, 2015

Last week, the Iowa Voter Registration Commission (the “Commission”) held a public hearing on proposed regulations to establish online voter registration, signaling its intent to move forward with the rules after a formal vote in the coming weeks. Unfortunately, the Commission missed an opportunity by failing to pass a full online registration system and to make electronic registration at agencies mandatory. These advances, if adopted, would have benefitted more voters and resulted in even more cost savings for the state. The Iowa Legislature should pick up where the Commission left off, and promptly enact legislation to provide for a more expansive online registration system through a process that reflects the input of election officials, advocacy organizations, and the public.

The Commission’s new rulemaking will pave the way for the Iowa Department of Transportation (“DOT”) by mid-2016 to create an online voter registration portal that would be accessible only to those with an Iowa DOT-issued photo ID. While the Commission deserves credit for passing regulations to implement an online system, it should also be noted that the rulemaking did not have buy-in from the state’s county auditors or from Iowa civic engagement groups. Worse, the public was barely given an opportunity to respond to the rulemaking, as the public hearing was rushed and ill-timed.

The Brennan Center, along with allies including the League of Women Voters of Iowa and the ACLU of Iowa, submitted comments to the Commission in advance of the hearing, encouraging the panel to expand its rulemaking to maximize the benefits of online and electronic registration and save money for the state. The coalition sought online registration that would be available to all eligible voters, not just those with a DOT ID. According to the DOT itself, there are nearly 100,000 Iowans who are eligible to vote but lack an ID card issued by the DOT. Among those most likely to lack a driver’s license are seniors, people with disabilities, and low-income individuals. Iowa, a state that rightfully prides itself on its history of democratic participation, deserves a modern voter registration system that is equally open to all eligible populations. Further, in order to fully realize the cost savings and increased voter roll accuracy that a modernized registration process offers, the state needs to make the program as robust as possible.

The Brennan Center also urged the Commission to require all agencies that conduct voter registration to electronically transmit these records to the voter registrar. Under current Iowa regulations, electronic registration is simply voluntary, and to-date no agencies are taking advantage of agency-based electronic registration, which has proven benefits:

  • It increases registration rates because it provides a convenient option for citizens who are already interacting with a government agency to seamlessly integrate voter registration into the interaction.
  • It saves money, by reducing the need for paper mailings and reducing the time and manpower needed to enter registration data.
  • Finally, it boosts the accuracy of registration information by minimizing the mistakes inherent in human data entry. This creates more secure rolls and gives voters confidence that the information in the lists is correct.

Iowa’s 2015 legislative session begins on January 12. We strongly urge the legislature to act where the Voter Registration Commission did not by introducing and passing legislation to comprehensively modernize Iowa’s voter registration system. Such legislation should mandate electronic transmission of voter registration applications by agencies, and create an online registration system that is accessible to all eligible Iowans.

New Secretary of State Paul Pate has already expressed his interest in working with the legislature to bring Iowa’s voter registration process into the 21st century. The legislature now has the opportunity to make these changes the right way, by working with election officials, civic engagement groups, and the public. 

(Photo: Thinkstock)