Secretary of State's office wrongly inactivated many Iowa voters

The Iowa Secretary of State’s office moved thousands of Iowans who did not vote in the 2020 general election to “inactive” status this month. But according to Linn County Auditor Joel Miller, a recent “No Activity” mailing from the state went to at least three groups of voters who should not have received it. Consequently, state officials “incorrectly inactivated” hundreds of voters in Linn County alone.

Staff in the Secretary of State’s office did not reply to Bleeding Heartland’s inquiries on April 23, nor did they respond to a “Notice of Technical Infraction and Letter of Instruction Miller sent to Secretary of State Paul Pate the previous day.

WHAT IT MEANS TO BE AN “INACTIVE” VOTER

Moving a registered voter to inactive status is the first step toward removing a person from the voter rolls (which typically happens years later). Under a national change of address program, the Iowa Secretary of State’s office previously sent “No Activity” notices in April of odd-numbered years to “voters who have not voted in any election and have not updated their voter registration information in the past four years.”

Iowa’s recently revised election law requires the secretary of state to send those mailings to anyone “who has not voted in the most recent general election and has not registered again or who has not reported a change to an existing registration.” (It’s in section 25 on pages 9 and 10 of the lengthy bill.) “Registered voters receiving such notice shall be marked inactive,” the code now stipulates.

Arguably that law, enacted last month, should apply to Iowans not participating in future general elections. But Pate’s office interpreted it to mean mailings should to go those who didn’t vote in the November 2020 election. Pate posted on Twitter on April 22,

Inactive voters are not barred from voting, but unlike active registered voters, they are not included on the pre-registration list provided to poll workers. CORRECTION: Electronic poll books used at Iowa polling places do list active and inactive voters, according to Sioux County Auditor Ryan Dokter. Inactive voters who show up to vote on election day will be activated, Dokter said, “assuming no information changed as to where they are registered.” Those voters may be required to show proof of address, which may be only a minor hassle, if their driver’s license shows the same address where they are registered to vote.

But what if an inactive voter doesn’t have a driver’s license, or has moved since last renewing the license? They might need a utility bill, a copy of a rental agreement, or some other document proving residence in addition to their normal ID.

Most people don’t carry around such papers. At minimum, they would need to go home and retrieve them. If they don’t have time to make a second trip to the polling place or can’t find proof of address papers, they might not be able to cast a ballot.

“A CHILL TO VOTERS ACROSS THE STATE”

Inactivating voters is a routine part of voter list maintenance. State elections director Heidi Burhans told county auditors in an April 19 email that the Secretary of State’s office “ran the query to determine where no voter initiated activity has occurred,” and “this past weekend inactivated those voters receiving the No Activity notice.”

Miller asserted in an April 22 letter sent to Pate electronically, “During this process, grave errors were made. Your office incorrectly sent no activity mailers to unintended individuals and thus incorrectly inactivated hundreds, if not thousands, of voters.” The following groups were affected:

  • Registered voters under age 18. Iowa law allows people to register at the age of 17 and a half, even though they cannot cast ballots until their 18th birthday.
  • “Pending voters,” who tried to register but made some error on the form. County auditors leave such applications pending while they try to verify the information and confirm the voter’s identity.
  • Voters who died after November 3, 2020. County elections officials had cancelled those registrations, as required by law. Now many of them have been moved to inactive status instead.

“Incorrectly inactivating voters is a chill to voters across the state,” Miller wrote. “It sows distrust and uncertainty while also discouraging voters from voting.”

Under Iowa’s new law, election officials who make mistakes could face harsh penalties. Republicans wrote that language with a view to punishing county auditors (including Miller) who attempted to send pre-filled absentee ballot request forms to voters. But under the statute, any election official who “fails to perform duties” or fails to follow guidance, or “performs those duties and responsibilities in such a way as to hinder or disregard the object of the law,” could be charged with a class D felony.

In his letter, Miller said the Secretary of State’s office had done just that.

The object of the law is to inactivate individuals who have not voted. It is not to inactivate deceased individuals, to inactivate 17 1/2 year old new registrants, or to inactivate pending voters.

Our office and other county offices must explain this error to angry and confused voters. In addition, this incorrect inactivation disincentives a population which already lacks trust in our election system.

Miller advised Pate to “put a procedure in place” to ensure his staff identify the correct populations before sending no activity notices. His closing line might be described as high-level trolling: “We would welcome the opportunity to work with you and your staff on best practices to prevent future violations of Iowa law.”

SILENCE FROM THE SECRETARY OF STATE’S OFFICE

After reading Miller’s letter, I had many questions for the secretary of state’s office. How did these errors happen? Were voters in every county improperly inactivated? If only some, which counties were affected?

Who within Pate’s office prepared the script to identify voters to be sent No Activity notices? Did anyone at the state level ask any county auditors to review the resulting list before mailing the notices?

Burhans and Kevin Hall, communications director for the secretary of state, did not respond to emails. The errors are embarrassing, especially since Pate often celebrates youth voter registration efforts.

Sioux County Auditor Ryan Dokter, who is president of the Iowa State Association of County Auditors, did not know whether the problems Miller found affected all counties. He also did not have any statewide estimate for the number of voters who were incorrectly moved to inactive status.

In a late afternoon blog post on April 23, Miller said that 23 hours after sending his letter to Pate, he had “not received an acknowledgement of my email from the Secretary, his chief of staff, or his legal counsel.”

Between now and the time of my Notice, we have observed changes in Linn County’s voter list, which is stored in IVoters, the statewide voter registration & elections system owned and maintained by the Office of Secretary of State. We have yet to determine whether the changes are routine maintenance and/or something nefarious.

Silence leads to conspiracy theories. Transparency leads to trust. I challenge Secretary Pate to be transparent … today.

Miller is exploring a 2022 bid for the Democratic nomination for secretary of state. Pate has signaled he intends to seek re-election. The two men have clashed on many occasions over election administration decisions.

A news release Miller published on his website on April 23 noted, “Auditor Travis Weipert of Johnson County joins in Auditor Miller’s concerns and demands that Johnson County voters who were incorrectly inactivated be notified and re-activated.” Like Miller, Weipert has been heavily criticized by Pate and other Republicans for attempting to send pre-filled absentee ballot request forms last year. Courts later ruled those forms invalid, so Miller, Weipert, and their Woodbury County counterpart Pat Gill sent voters blank request forms in their place.

UPDATE: Kevin Hall never responded to my inquiries but did provide further information to Ryan Foley of the Associated Press.

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate’s office this month mailed postcards to 294,148 registered voters who did not cast ballots in 2020 informing them of their inactive status, spokesman Kevin Hall said. That represents more than 13% of the state’s 2.2 million registered voters. […]

Hall said that it was not an error to mark as inactive roughly 400 17-year-olds who legally registered to vote under state law but could not participate in the 2020 election since they had not yet turned 18. He said the voter maintenance law applies to all registered voters. But in the future, Hall said the state may seek to exempt those 17-year-olds from inactivation when it writes administrative rules to implement the new law.

Hall disclosed Monday that the state’s database vendor, Arikkan, mistakenly moved 492 people whose registrations had been canceled because they died or for other reasons to inactive status. He said that error was quickly discovered and they have been returned to canceled.


Appendix: Full text of technical infraction letter from Linn County Auditor Joel Miller to Secretary of State Paul Pate

  • A few clarifications needed

    First, Auditor Miller is inaccurate in his statement that Iowa law says 17 1/2 year olds can register to vote but must be 18 by Election Day. It is 17 NOT 17 1/2.. That was passed in 2019.

    Secondly, how does the language in the law that states, a registered voter
    “who has not voted in the most recent general election and has not registered again or who has not reported a change to an existing registration.”
    does NOT apply back to 2020 but to future elections. The language seems fairly clear to me.

    Third, let’s be clear, the only thing INACTIVE means is that they did not vote in the past election. They are not taken off the rolls. It is only after not voting in TWO general elections that they are removed. I believe the existing law said the same thing that after TWO general elections they could be removed from the polls. The only thing a voter needs to do is to GO VOTE to get back on active status. I think the new law just creates more work because at least 20% of voters typically only vote in presidential races.

    Lastly, the Sec. of State has not had an opportunity to complete the administrative rule process prior to the April federally mandated report of inactive voters. A lot ot this could be cleared up through this process.

    Sincerely,
    John Olsen
    Ankeny, IA

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