116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author and do not represent the views or opinions of the Linn County Auditor’s Office.
Last week, I examined a couple parts of Iowa’s new voting rules, signed into law in 2021. As I wrote at the time, the new rules left me with mixed feelings, particularly the trimming of the early voting period from 29 days to 20. The reduced time frame may still be more than enough time to cast an early vote in person, but problems could arise for those who vote by mail if an error occurs that requires a redo.
Having established a look at the law with a critical eye, though, I have to admit that I don’t find all of the voting law changes unfavorable. I’m even quite fine with some of them.
I’m not bothered at all by the fact that Election Day polling places close at 8 p.m. now instead of 9, and I’m confident that most election workers feel the same. Election workers — many of them retirees — put in an extremely long day. Considering the multiple options available for casting a vote, I cannot be convinced that closing polls an hour earlier has enough of a negative effect on voters to counter the positive that comes from that tiny respite for those workers. Or from having the results from each precinct turned in an hour earlier for elections staff to begin processing (and media to begin reporting.)
The new law also instituted the requirement that early voting satellites — any early voting station set up outside a county auditor’s office — must first receive a petition of a minimum 100 eligible voters. It may surprise some that I don’t mind this change, given my history as an early voting worker. I’ve worked voting satellites in libraries, grocery stores, and even underneath the bleachers of a high school football game. For this reason, I can see both sides of the sentiment.
In a way, the debate over the best use of satellite voting comes down to philosophy. One might argue that since the job of a local elections office is to maximize participation in the voting process, county auditors should be able to set up satellite voting at their discretion, such as in locations nearer to populations less engaged in the voting process. Another might argue that because of the planning, labor and expenses involved, such as gathering and transporting a van full of equipment and paying staff to run the site, satellites serve their purpose best in locations where they’re expected to be well-attended.
Requiring a petition sets a standard that a satellite voting location will reflect the desires of the local electorate, hopefully helping to blunt any potential scrutiny of a commissioner’s intentions when held in an area where local demographics favor one party over the other. The petition requirement won’t prohibit satellites in places with those lopsided demographics — a collegiate student union or an evangelical megachurch can still host a voting satellite if the eligible electorate asks for it. Meanwhile, it might help ensure that resources aren’t wasted on well-intended but sparsely-attended satellites.
Finally, I am just fine with the new law’s rule requiring that the registrations of voters who miss a general election are placed in “inactive” status. The change itself is not at all the shameless attempt at kicking voters off the rolls that it’s been made out to be by the law’s loudest opponents. The understanding of the single rule change that prescribes the process for the inactivity rule seems tremendously lacking in context, to the point that some Iowans have been led to believe — incorrectly — that voters will be swiftly kicked off the voter rolls if they miss an election. A local viewer of WOI-TV in Des Moines, for example, sent in a question claiming there was “information out there that the Secretary of State has been allowed to purge voters from the voter registration records, and supposedly some of these people are alive and still able to vote.”
For the sake of accuracy, it is critical that anyone concerned with new rule on maintaining the state voter database understand that “inactive” and “canceled” are two significantly different statuses of registration. Nothing prevents an inactive voter from casting their vote — in fact, casting a vote is one of several methods prescribed in Iowa Code by which an inactive voter registration record is instantly made active. Requesting an absentee ballot or simply updating one’s name, address, phone number, or party on their voter registration also work.
The new law does state that a voter’s registration will be marked inactive if they do not vote in the most recent general election. Iowa law has long mandated regular maintenance of the state’s voter rolls, including but not limited to cancellation after a certain period of inactivity. Opponents of the new law can easily seize on that to claim voter suppression.
But again, context is important. In order for a voter’s registration to actually be canceled for inactivity under the new law, that voter would have to refrain from voting not one, but rather three general elections in a row — including at least one presidential election. In the here and now, that means voters whose records went inactive after missing the 2020 election would also have to skip both the 2022 and 2024 elections — and fail to respond to an official notice from their county auditor or update their records any other time — before their registration is actually canceled for inactivity. The right of a person to vote cannot be suppressed when that person refuses to exercise it. Even if that same voter were to show up to vote in 2026 unaware of their canceled registration, Iowa law makes it possible to re-register right at the polls and vote.
That’s the beauty of Iowa’s election laws. Even after the new changes, some of which I find less ideal than others, these laws remain incredibly comprehensive in nature, with multiple methods of voting available to best fit the needs of voters. As I wrote last week, the changes will be a bit of an adjustment. But it’s worth repeating: The best way for voters to avoid hiccups is to treat their vote as not just something they do, but that they plan. Voting is an intentional act, meant to be done with great discernment and consideration. Iowans are good at that, and no matter how many times the law might change, Iowans’ commitment to voting is one thing that never will.
Comments: 319-398-8266; email@example.com