DES MOINES — County auditors should be able to better spot felons barred from voting in the 2016 general election thanks to a database created by Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate since his office changed the approach to voter fraud when he took over last year.
Pate’s staff spent months working with officials in the state Department of Corrections, the judicial branch and Gov. Terry Branstad’s office to compile a list of Iowa felons who have had their voting rights restored to better help election officials ascertain which Iowans are disqualified from casting ballots now that early voting is underway in Iowa’s 99 counties.
The result is that election officials in each county now have access to databases that contain 56,997 records of felons not eligible to vote and about 250,000 Iowans who have had their voting rights restored, according to records dating to 1984.
“It’s about as comprehensive as we’re going to see,” Pate said in an interview last week. “It’s the first time that we’re aware of that we have a complete list of felons with their rights restored. It’s not just a list of felons. That was always the question mark.”
Pate said there were gaps in the data.
Former Gov. Tom Vilsack issued a blanket restoration of rights for felons during his administration. But in 2011, Branstad issued an executive order to rescind Vilsack’s 2005 order.
Under Branstad’s nullification action, Iowa felons again were required to petition the governor to have voting rights restored — a process he agreed to streamline earlier this year.
Now, with the data that is updated regularly and accessible to county election officials, auditors can use the lists to determine eligibility and submit changes to Pate’s office verifying voters’ residency, age, citizenship and other qualifications to participate in the election process, he said.
“Each county auditor will have the list and, if there’s any doubt, they call our office and we will physically go to the archives and pull the paper up. That’s kind of the last resort we have to verify,” he said. “We gave this information to them to make sure they can cross check it. So there should be nobody registering who’s not supposed to be.”
Pate said his office took the new approach “for a spin in the primary” and it worked pretty well. But with same-day voter registration in Iowa and a higher-turnout presidential-year general election, he said, there still may be some situations where an Iowan will have to cast a provisional ballot so questions of eligibility can be resolved.
“We’re trying to avoid that,” Pate said. “We’re not trying to inconvenience, but we’re going to make sure the integrity is protected because you can’t take a vote back out of the box once it’s in there.”
The 2016 situation is in contrast to voter registration rules proposed in 2012 by former Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz that critics alleged would threaten to disenfranchise eligible voters and touched off a long-running legal battle.
That battle ended when Pate voluntarily dismissed an appeal pending before the Iowa Supreme Court.
Those proposed rules had set out a process for identifying and removing noncitizens and ineligible applicants from Iowa’s voter list first by screening registered voters against state and national lists of noncitizens, and then running names through a federal verification database.
During his four-year term, Schultz — now the Madison County attorney — contracted with the Iowa Department of Public Safety to assign an officer full-time to investigate voter fraud allegations. That cost nearly $250,000 over two year and resulted in fewer than 10 convictions.
Pate said his approach is to promote civic participation and to use his authority to the fullest extent of state and federal law to ensure accurate voter lists. He said he is working protect the integrity of Iowa’s voting system without pursuing a course with significant legal hurdles.
“I really don’t want to spend my time being a cop,” Pate said.
“My approach was we got the list cleaned up so I know who the good players are and who the bad players are. We now want to do a better job of informing them so they know. When those two things are done, I’m going to have to say that anybody who tries to vote after that are bad guys and I think they ought to be turned over for prosecution,” he said.
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“But until I’ve done those two steps I’m not as enthusiastic about just going out and charging people. I want to make sure I’ve done all of the things that I can do first. And we’re getting closer to that. We’re going to do our best to educate you, give you an opportunity to be on the right side of it and when that is accomplished, then it’s follow the rules,” he added.