Government

Iowa Secretary of State vows 'huge fix' to list of felons banned from voting

Iowa has some of most restrictive laws in nation against felon voting

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate talks with Adrian Evans’ AP US Government class at Kennedy High School before they counted straw poll ballots in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate talks with Adrian Evans’ AP US Government class at Kennedy High School before they counted straw poll ballots in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate says his office is undertaking a major hands-on review of the state’s felon database to ensure all eligible registrants are able to exercise their constitutional right at the ballot box in the 2020 presidential election.

Iowa is one of only two states — Kentucky is the other — that permanently bar felons from voting unless they petition the governor for a restoration of rights.

Yet the state’s list of roughly 69,000 felons who cannot vote is riddled with inaccuracies, according to a Des Moines Register investigation published earlier this year after scrutinizing elections in six counties.

The Republican secretary of state said Tuesday a “clean” felon database is needed, so he “repurposed” some existing staff and plans to hire more to review — electronically and manually — more than 90,000 files.

He said the goal is to have an accurate list in county auditors’ hands before the 29-day absentee balloting window opens in October 2020, heading into the Nov. 3 general election.

“It’s taking a proactive step to fix the problem,” Pate said of discrepancies in Iowa’s current felon database.

“Every eligible Iowan should be able to vote. This is a huge fix,” he added in an interview. “My team has put in countless hours to update the felon database, and many more hours of work are needed. I want to ensure every single file is accurate. That is going to take a lot of time, energy and resources, but we will get it done.”

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Pate, who also serves as Iowa’s commissioner of elections, said his office is working with the Iowa Judicial Branch to ensure information provided by the courts on felony convictions is accurate. It’s a six-step verification process that incudes three new ones.

Pate also submitted a new administrative rule to the Legislative Services Agency for review that clarifies the roles of the Iowa Judicial Branch, the Secretary of State’s Office and county auditors for operating the felon database.

Pate said the multiple review process is meant to proof felony convictions and check judicial disposition orders for verification.

From there, county auditors will determine if somebody matching that information is a registered voter and if so, the registration would be canceled as required by Iowa law. A letter would be sent giving the voter an opportunity to respond if the individual feels the registration was wrongfully canceled, according to Pate’s office.

“This is something that has to be done no matter what. We have to have a clean list,” he said.

“We are improving our processes to make sure eligible voters are not deterred from casting ballots,” he added. “My staff is going to dig through every record, no matter how old, double and triple check the information with the courts, and make sure everything is correct. This is a team effort and we’ve asked the courts and all 99 county auditors to take the additional steps.”

Pate said he plans to use federal funds provided through the Help America Vote Act to pay for additional staff needed to conduct the “heavy lift” of reviewing the felon data to produce a “more user-friendly system.” He said he may also request future state funding to maintain the database.

“The bottom line is we repeatedly ask election officials to use the provisional ballot option if there is any doubt about a voter’s status,” Pate added, referring to what he called a “fail safe” backup mechanism. “We don’t want any eligible voter to be disenfranchised.”

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Pate’s project is independent of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ effort during the 2019 legislative session to promote a constitutional amendment to allow felons who have completed their sentences to vote — an initiative that passed the House but stalled in the Senate where majority Republicans expressed concerns about allowing felons to vote without fully paying restitution to victims.

The governor has indicated she plans to promote the issue of improving Iowa’s process for restoring felon voting rights again during the upcoming 2020 legislative session that convenes in January.

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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