Being flagged as inactive in the state's voter registration database does not immediately affect anyone’s ability to vote in any way, according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s office. But under state law, it's the first step in a process that would result in the cancellation of one’s registration after four more years of inactivity.
A new GOP law rewriting voting rules, signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds last month, requires the Iowa secretary of state to move all voters who did not cast ballots in the most recent general election to inactive status. Previously, voters had to miss two consecutive general elections to be moved to that status.
The new Iowa law is part of a nationwide push by Republicans to ensure that only those eligible to vote are registered and clean up outdated, bloated voter rolls that they say invite fraud. Democrats argued Iowa's changes are too aggressive, will wrongly categorize voters who purposely choose not to vote in an election or missed for a valid reason and could eventually lead to purges of some eligible voters.
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.
Voters who still live in the same county can return to active status by signing and returning the postcards. They will also be made active if they request an absentee ballot, vote or update their registrations from now through the 2024 general election. After that, they could face cancellation.
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.
Under a law that went into effect in 2019, people in Iowa can register to vote once they turn 17. Previously, they had to be 17 years and six months old.
Pate, a Republican, often visits with high school students to encourage them to register. He also gives awards across the state to every school that registers at least 90 percent of their eligible students, saying “it’s vital that we engage students in the electoral process.”
Linn County Auditor Joel Miller, a Democrat considering a run against Pate in 2022, told Pate in a letter last week that registered 17-year-olds, including 42 in his county, should not have received inactivity notices.
“Incorrectly inactivating voters is a chill to voters across the state,” Miller wrote. “It sows distrust and uncertainty while also discouraging voters from voting.”
Miller said Monday said it sends young people the wrong message to encourage them to register and then quickly turn around and list them as inactive.
He said his office has been hearing from 17-year-olds who are upset about receiving the notices and other voters who claim they did vote in 2020 and shouldn’t be considered inactive.
Miller also questions whether the new standard should apply retroactively. He noted that voters who sat out the 2020 election were not on notice that doing so would move their status to inactive.
“Unfortunately, it just makes out whole election system look debatable," he said.