Iowa has halted its use of an error-ridden database intended to stop people convicted of felonies from voting, while state officials check the accuracy of its more than 100,000 entries.
But the anticipated 11-month gap while the database is being rebuilt has created another concern among some of Iowa’s 99 county auditors: how to quickly verify voter eligibility before the Feb. 3 caucuses and the June 2 primaries.
Auditors’ inability to verify eligibility against a database could mean felons may illegally register to vote or cast a ballot without being aware they are committing a crime.
The additional confusion prompted renewed calls Thursday for Gov. Kim Reynolds to take emergency action to restore felon voter rights, most likely through an executive order.
“The governor just needs to buck it up,” Lee County Auditor Denise Fraise said.
The Register in November also identified people whose rights Reynolds had restored, yet who remained listed in the database as ineligible to vote.
And a reviewof 700 entries, published in December by the Associated Press, found that 4% of the cases weren’t felony convictions and shouldn’t have been included. The AP also found that errors resulted in the Des Moines Police Department and the State of Iowa being listed as felons.
Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate’s office did not respond to the Register’s request for comment Thursday. Molly Widen, an attorney for Pate’s office, told the Cedar Rapids Gazette this week that her office decided to “clean out” the data so only verified records would be shown going forward.
Pate, a Republican, in November announced his staff will manually review each file in the felon database in a six-step verification process it hopes to complete before this year’s general election. But it wasn’t until this week that it was known among auditors that the old list would be removed.
In addition to Fraise, county auditors from Linn, Sioux and Pottawattamie counties confirmed to the Register that the old list had been taken down.
Linn County Auditor Joel Miller is the plaintiff of an ongoing complaint alleging Iowa’s election system is prone to hackers and is in violation of a federal voting law. He has cited inaccuracies in the felon voter database in his arguments about the system.
Miller, a Democrat, said his staff was advised last week that the Secretary of State’s office was working on the maintenance of its voter registration list and on Monday found the felon list was empty.
The list — even with flaws — is critical as a guide partly because people sometimes believe they are eligible to vote due to confusion with the law, Miller said.
“It doesn’t help people who want to caucus or who want to participate in the June primary,” Miller said of the list being taken down.
Sioux County Auditor Ryan Dokter said he is advising people who have any questions about their eligibility to contact their county auditor and the secretary of state. Dokter, a Republican, is the vice president of the Iowa State Association of County Auditors, a group made up of auditors and staff from all 99 counties.
“It’s pretty rare but there are some cases where we need to dig further into it and do our research and make sure we’re as quick as possible in getting these answers for people inquiring,” Dokter said.
Reynolds this week vowed to clear a backlog of more than 300 people who had applied for restoration before the Feb. 3 caucuses.
She has so far resisted signing an executive order like newly elected Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear did to automatically restore the rights of felons who have completed their sentences. Reynolds says she wants to avoid adding to the confusion created by conflicting executive orders on felon voters signed by previous Iowa governors.
Instead, she wants the Legislature to begin the process to enact the change through a constitutional amendment. An amendment would be more resistant to political whims but requires approval from the Legislature in two successive two-year sessions before it can be placed on the ballot for a statewide vote.
Reynolds did not immediately respond late Thursday to a request for comment about the old list being retired prior to the completion of a new, updated list.
Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group based in Washington, D.C., has assisted more than 250 Iowans in recent months with voter restoration issues. Blair Bowie, an attorney for the group, praised Pate’s action Thursday to halt the use of the old list. But she emphasized her group believes the best action is for Reynolds to issue an executive order to end all possible confusion.
“It’s good they’re not using a list that’s proven to have errors, but the most important thing as the caucuses approach is that people who are eligible to vote aren’t turned away,” Bowie said.
Iowa stands alone
More than 52,000 people in Iowa — a number greater than the population of 89 of the state’s 99 counties — are currently prohibited from voting.
Civil rights advocates have long said the ban disproportionately affects minorities, noting statistics from the Sentencing Project that show black people in Iowa are imprisoned at 11 times the rate of white people. Some have linked felon voter bans to Jim Crow actions taken by white-dominated legislatures to enforce racial segregation in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In addition to the allegation of race-related inequities, the accuracy of Iowa’s felon list has been at issue. That ultimately prompted Pate to halt the use of the database in the past week.
In 2016 alone, 2,591 people had their voting rights restored after Pate determined they were incorrectly listed, records obtained by the Des Moines Register show.
A Register investigation published last year found that the ballots of more than two-dozen voters had been wrongly rejected since 2017 — including 20 in the November 2018 midterm elections — because their names erroneously appeared on the felon list that the state circulates to county officials.
In addition, a Register review in September found that at least 69 Iowans who had been convicted in other states, and who had their voting rights restored after serving sentences there, remained on the list of felons ineligible to vote — despite an Iowa policy to recognize such restorations by other states.