Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Don't Let Your Voter Registration Get Elvised

Don't Let Your Voter Registration Get Elvised

A mailing this week from the Secretary of State’s office could be a nice convenience to recently moved voters, or a headache at the polls. Voters who think they’re updating their address may in fact be canceling their registration.

Iowa law prior to 1993 was simple: Four years without voting, you’re out. But the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, better known as “Motor Voter,” makes it harder to permanently cancel a voter’s registration. You can’t get dumped anymore just for not voting. Everything is based on the mail.

If your mail gets the Elvis treatment -- return to sender, address unknown –- you get put on what’s called “inactive” status. Inactive voters have to show ID to vote or get off the inactive list. After two general elections on the inactive list, then voters can be deleted. To delete you sooner than that, county auditors need official notice from your new community, proof that you’re dead, or your signature.

The annual National Change of Address (NCOA) mailing is a provision of Motor Voter that’s designed to help clean up the voter files by giving voters an extra opportunity to update their addresses –- or get Elvised.

Each year, the Secretary of State’s office gets the U.S. Postal Service’s NCOA database and cross-references it with the state voter file to find people who have moved, but not updated their voter registration yet. They update the voter’s address to the new address reported by the Post Office, then mail cards to both the voter’s old and new addresses. The return address is the local county auditor for the old address where they’re registered. (Auditors used to send out the mailing themselves until a couple years ago, when the statewide voter registration system went on line.) The cards include a place for the voter to sign and confirm the new address.

The tricky part starts when the cards start coming back to the auditors. NCOA cards include the language required by law, but don’t really explain what happens.

Some folks have it really easy. If all you’ve done is move across town, your address gets updated. You don’t even have to sign your card and send it back. But if you’ve done anything more complicated, you need to make sure you know what you’re doing.

If the NCOA database reports a move out of state or across county lines, the voter gets placed on inactive status. Same thing happens if your card gets Elvised from the new address.

The voters who face the most confusion are those who have moved across county lines within Iowa. The cards seem self-evident. My old address is, my new address is, sign here. But even though Iowa has a statewide registration database, as required under the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), Iowa law still says registration is done at the county level.

Let’s say you’ve moved from Iowa City to Des Moines. You get an official looking card that says, “My old address is Iowa City, my new address is Des Moines.” You think, “that’s nice of them, I needed to do that,” sign it, and send it back. Danger, Will Robinson: You’ve just canceled your registration in Johnson County -– but you haven’t registered in Polk County. You need to fill out a new registration form.

NCOA hits young, mobile populations the most, but another group that’s impacted is the snowbird population. The Postal Service considers changes of addresses that last longer than a month permanent. So if you spend each winter in Arizona, and get your mail forwarded, the NCOA process assumes you’ve moved out of state. And as the luck of timing would have it, the database is usually updated around March 1, right at the end of snowbird season.

The good news is that this year, Election Day voter registration will give you a second chance if you find yourself Elvised at the polls. But that’s still a little harder than just showing up and voting, because you need ID and proof of your address. Your best bet is to get a voter registration form, go to the courthouse, and follow The King’s advice: “This time I’m gonna take it myself, and put it right in her hand.”

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