Election law seems to be more of an issue in this election cycle than it's been for a long time. Iowa, among many other states, is facing battles over photo ID and citizenship verification.
As many readers know, I've worked in an auditor's office for 15 years. In that time I've seen almost every possible problem, though just when I think I have someone comes up with a new one.
I feel like I've written this story before, but this time of year it can't hurt to repeat myself. The safest thing to do is just to check your registration. The Secretary of State has a convenient spot to do that.
For 2012, photo ID is only required in Iowa under limited circumstances, mostly related to registering or updating your address in the very last days. Let's leave aside the arguments about what the law should be. We can and probably will discuss that in the 2013 legislative session. For today, let's just look at what the law IS and see where it might trip up a good intentioned, eligible voter. This isn't comprehensive -- nothing is -- but probably covers 95% or more of the problems people have.
Two major federal laws deal with maintenance of the voter rolls. The first of these, and probably the more significant to list maintenance, is the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, better known as "Motor Voter," which took effect at the beginning of 1995.
You're probably familiar with the most prominent feature of Motor Voter: registration at your drivers license bureau. (More on that later.) But Motor Voter also deals with the back end of registration, list maintenance. Motor Voter wants to make it hard to totally cancel your registration, but it can put you in limbo.
Before 1994 in Iowa, voter purges were simple. Four years without voting or updating your registration, you were out. But since Motor Voter, no one anywhere in the country is supposed to be canceled just for not voting. Instead, everything depends on whether or not you are able to get mail. Unless it's something obvious like death or confirmed registration elsewhere, complete cancellation is a years-long process that requires multiple efforts to contact the voter by mail.
Each year election offices are required to send cards to people who show up on the postal National Change Of Address (NCOA) list who have not updated their voter registration address. Offices are also allowed to send you a notice ONCE every four years if you haven't voted. Not an automatic cancellation; just a reminder. And this year, with redistricting and reprecincting, many counties mailed cards to EVERY registered voter.
If these cards, or a voter card from a new or changed registration, gets returned to sender, address unknown, no such number, no such soul, the election office is required to put the voter on what's called "Inactive" status. Note to campaign staffers: this is NOT the same thing as just a weak voter. Think of inactive status as preliminary cancellation. The voter has to sit on inactive status through two general elections before they can get completely canceled. This is relatively easy to fix by updating your registration -- if you know about it. (This is also one of the limited circumstances where you will be asked for ID.)
Johnson County did a county wide mailing this February, and one out of every eight voters had to be inactivated. Now, that's not unexpected in a college town. But undoubtedly, some people who simply moved ACROSS town rather than OUT of town were affected.
The other law that has a big impact on voter registration status is the Help (sic) America Vote Act ("HAVA") of 2002. HAVA was the federal response to Florida 2000, and as such is mostly about equipment and polling place accessibility.
Where HAVA impacts voter registration is on the front end. Since January 2003, every new registrant has been required to provide either an in-state drivers license/ID number or, if they don't have one, a partial Social Security number. The idea is to prove you are a live human being. There are provisions for people who don't have either number. I've yet to see someone like that in ten years, but they do exist. (Trivia: in the early years of Social Security, women were given their husband's numbers with a suffix, i.e. 123-45-6789A)
HAVA also required states to establish state-level, on line voter registration software. There's a bit of a legal contradiction: HAVA in effect assumes that registration is a state-level function, but Iowa law specifies that it's a county level function. This, as you'll see, can trip you up.
So that's the over-simplified background lecture. Now the important part: reasons to be especially concerned about your registration. Many of these are simple human error, on your part or someone else's; some of them are unintended consequences of the law.
If you've moved. This should seem obvious, but it can be tricky. One problem with the legal notice, change of address cards: The legally required wording is misleading and incomplete.
Let's say you get a card and send it back saying "I've moved from Des Moines to Davenport." Remember, under Iowa law registration is a COUNTY function, not a STATE function. You may think, and reasonably so, that you've updated your address to Scott County. No. You've instead told the Polk County office that you've moved away. They can't register you in Scott County. All they can do, and are legally required to do, is completely cancel you. It doesn't say so anywhere on the card, but what you need to do is fill out a new form for Scott County.
If you registered when you got your driver's license. Don't get me wrong. The DOT, and other agencies required to register voters, have done a good job since 1995 on a task that in fairness is not their primary function. But this piece of Motor Voter takes registration out of the hands of the election office and adds an intermediary. And as in any task, one more step means one more chance for a mistake to happen.
The DOT electronically transmits registrations to local election offices, via the statewide voter system. If something goes wrong in the middle, the election office has no way to know you registered at the DOT.
Another common misconception is that you are AUTOMATICALLY registered to vote when you get your license. Not so. You can be eligible for a license but not eligible to vote. Or you may not want to be registered to vote. (I find this incomprehensible, but so be it.) You have to check the box or answer the question that says, yes, you DO want to register.
If you live more than one place. This mainly affects two very different kinds of people: students and snowbirds.
The Johnson County Farm Bureau recently passed a resolution stating that college students should only vote by absentee ballot from their parent's community. Fine, that's their opinion. But the Supreme Court (Symm v. United States, 1979) says otherwise, and students can, in fact, vote at college.
Students do a lot of things for the first time at college, and make a lot of mistakes at those things. (Anyone who knew me when I was 20 can just shut. up. now.) They're used to putting two sets of address, college and parents, on everything, they're unfamiliar with the forms, and so on. Another, newer issue: Students born in the 1990s deal with paper and especially with snail mail less and less. Something like a missing apartment number can get your voter card Elvised back to the election office and get you inactivated.
As for the snowbirds, they, too can decide whether to register at their summer or winter residence. Not both. The statewide database requirement of HAVA helped de-duplicate in-state registration a lot, but tracking registration across state lines is still difficult. It relies heavily on self-reporting; when you register in Arizona, you're supposed to list that you were registered in Iowa, and Arizona is supposed to send that to Iowa. Again, a multi-step process increases the opportunity for error. There are ad hoc agreements between some states to compare lists, but nothing nationally comprehensive.
In addition, the Post Office treats temporary forwards of more than 30 days as permanent moves, and the annual NCOA mailings tend to happen in late winter, right when people are going from one home to another.
Do people with more than one home game the system? Sure. They do it for tax purposes, too. But if you LEGITIMATELY have more than one home, this site analyzes the two states and makes recommendations.
If you have had trouble with the post office. Remember: under Motor Voter everything depends on the mail getting through. This can even include things like opening or closing a post office box. Important note to PO Box-ers: You need to list BOTH addresses. The street address is required to assign you to a precinct, the mailing address is required to, well, get you your mail.
Also note: Even in one local area, neighboring post offices can have very different policies. When I lived in Lone Tree, where most residents have a box, I used to get mail addressed to "John Deeth, Lone Tree IA." But Tiffin is especially fussy about boxes vs. street addresses.
If you have spaces or hyphens in your last name. Or if you use different last names for different purposes. Or if you use your middle name or a nickname. Or if some of your vital records have errors, say in your birthdate. This can cause problems in the HAVA-required license/SSN verification process, and frankly some counties are more diligent about researching these problems than others.
Special ethnic note: The Hispanic custom of using both a paternal and maternal surname (apellido) can confuse Anglo election workers. Same with the Chinese practice of family name first, personal name second.
If you have bad handwriting. The poor clerks can only work with what you give them. If that e looks like an o, or that crossed 7 affectation you have looks like a 4, you could have problems. If you have difficulty writing due to age or disability, someone else can help you fill the form out as long as you sign it.
I'm a big fan of election day registration. But think of it as a last-chance option, because the process is a bit harder than signing up before what we now call the "pre-registration" deadline on October 27. If you don't find yourself, it's a lot easier to fix the problems sooner rather than later.