It should go without saying, but two voter advocacy groups have found it necessary to inform Paul Pate, Iowa’s secretary of state, that the state must stop rejecting ballots from people misidentified on state lists as felons.
In a June 13 letter to Pate, the Brenan Center for Justice and the League of Women Voters of Iowa warned that the rejections violate the National Voter Registration Act, a law that allows the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue civil actions against states that violate voter registration practices.
Iowa currently bars felons from voting unless the governor or president individually restores the right. Gov. Kim Reynolds’ legislative effort to amend Iowa’s constitution and restore voting rights of felons who have completed their sentences stalled in the Iowa Senate last spring.
An attorney for the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan institute based at the New York University School of Law, told The Des Moines Register that the state could face federal court action if the problems arising from the errant felon database weren’t fixed.
The point of our notice letters is to avoid litigation,” said attorney Eliza Sweren-Becker. “They’re intended to alert secretaries of states to issues we see and to find ways to assist them in resolving those issues.”
The Associated Press reported that Iowa election officials have been aware of the problems for years. Pate’s staff put nearly 2,600 Iowans back on the voting rolls in 2016 after errors were discovered. Despite that, problems have persisted.
The Register, following a six-county review of voter records, found that dozens of voters’ ballots were wrongly rejected in 2017 and 2018. And that was but six of Iowa’s 99 counties.
Pate’s spokesman, Kevin Hall, said the secretary hasn’t responded to the groups’ letter, but Pate is working on administrative rule changes that would require courts to provide conviction documents anytime someone is submitted for inclusion on the felon database.
“This additional step will help ensure the accuracy of the felon database and relieve some of the burden on county auditors,” Hall said. He added that auditors – not Pate – have the legal authority to cancel a voter’s registration.
The two voter groups say otherwise. Their letter said a provision of the voter registration act says Pate’s office is responsible for voter list maintenance programs that ensure accurate and current voter registration rolls that are not discriminatory.
Pate’s focus appears to be on making sure that newly convicted felons are flagged to ensure their votes – should they vote – are not counted. That’s a valid issue to address. But the concern of the Brennan Center and the Iowa League of Women Voters is protecting those who are incorrectly listed as felons.
The two advocacy groups have raised a valid point that we think Pate should be concerned about. Ignoring the groups’ outreach for nearly two months is not in the best interest of the state or its voters.