Hundreds of thousands of Iowans lost their active registration status last month due to a new sweeping elections law that state Republicans passed earlier this year. There were 276,836 fewer Iowans with active registrations from April to May of this year, about a 13% drop in one month.
Under the new law, if a voter misses one even-numbered November general election, their status is marked inactive, and it was applied retroactively to include the 2020 election.
Previously, the inactive status was triggered if county auditors sent mail to a voter and it was returned to sender, indicating the voter no longer lives at that address, or if that voter didn’t participate in the two most-recent general elections.
Inactive isn’t the same as unregistered though. Voters are only removed from the rolls if they’re inactive for two more general elections after being marked inactive. So anyone marked inactive in 2020 won’t be removed if they vote in 2022 or 2024.
But though it’s easy to inactivate people, it’s also easy for voters to reactivate their voting status — if they’re aware of what to do.
If you were marked inactive, you should have gotten a card in the mail from your auditor, and you can return that to their office. You will also be reactivated if you request an absentee ballot for an upcoming election, go to the polls or update your registration online.
“They don’t get canceled unless they go two consecutive general elections without voting, or they specifically in writing request they be canceled,” said Diane Patrick, the auditor for Boone County. “Otherwise, they just stay in that inactive status.”
And several county auditors expressed hope that most voters will be able to resolve the issue.
“If they’re inactive and they live at their same address, they would show ID [at the polls] just like anybody else. You still appear on the register when you’re inactive,” said Lucy Martin, the auditor for Story County. With the large number of students attending Iowa State University, she said her office handles inactive voters all the time.
She still recommends everyone always be aware of their voting status, though. You can check your registration status easily online here.
“If you are inactivated and you present yourself to vote or you submit an absentee ballot request forms that that activates your record,” Martin said.
Pat Gill, the auditor for Woodbury County, said his office processes those inactive postcards all the time.
“For the most part, it’s pretty seamless for voters,” he said, thanks to the options voters have for reactivating their status.
The potential for problems arises when voters don’t have an easy ID like a driver’s license to show at the voting booth.
By law, the state has to provide a free ID option for people, and that takes the form of a voter ID card that voters are sent automatically in the mail when they request it from their county auditor. But John Deeth, an election staffer in Johnson County, said voters often confuse that with a voter confirmation card that can’t be used as ID.
And any confusion, he said, often results in a slow-down out of caution.
For voters who don’t pay attention to little changes, any barrier or complication could result in those people not casting a ballot.
Deeth said that in the short-term, this faster change to inactive status might result in voters falling through the cracks because they won’t have candidates, the state parties or third-party groups reaching out with information or to remind them to vote. And if they don’t participate in two more elections, they’ll be removed from the rolls entirely.
Gill said he believes state parties and outside organizations will adjust. Because inactive doesn’t mean unregistered, voter lists that include inactive voters are available for request from the state.
“They’re still registered voters. They still, as soon as they make any change to their voter records or show up to vote or whatever, they’re just right back into active status,” Patrick said. “A lot of people, unless they see that postcard, wouldn’t even realize that it happened.”
Most of the burden is on elections staffers and poll workers, the auditors said. And the problem is election laws that change constantly.
“This is just you know, this is just a piece of like a giant flood of stuff,” Martin said of the new law. “That’s the real enemy here, is that there are so many changes.” She said the changes make it hard to retain staff because they have to relearn new rules every time, and no one wants to make a mistake.
by Nikoel Hytrek