False Negative: Lawmakers to Investigate Data File Errors in Iowa


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Iowa’s Secretary of State is again under scrutiny from state lawmakers after a county auditor discovered that three voters were wrongly identified as felons and denied the right to vote. The Associated Press has more:

Errors in state records could be denying legitimate voters the right to cast ballots, a Republican county election official from northern Iowa said.

Three voters were wrongly denied the right to vote in Cerro Gordo County in northern Iowa in the 2012 presidential election, and Auditor Ken Kline said he wants an investigation to figure out how it happened and how to prevent it from happening again.

One person who was never convicted of a felony and two ex-felons whose voting rights had been restored were denied votes in the election after Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz’s office confirmed the three were on a list of ineligible voters, Kline told The Des Moines Register for a story published Thursday.

The problem arose when these voters in question were flagged as potentially ineligible voters when they used the state’s same-day registration process:

[P]recinct officials challenged eight same-day-registration voters on Nov. 6, 2012, based on possible matches with a statewide list of felons. They were given provisional ballots, but none were counted after Schultz’s office confirmed the voters were on the official list of felons.

An Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agent checked into the cases at Schultz’s request and later found one of the voters had been charged with a felony but was never convicted. The other two had rights restored by an executive order issued by former Gov. Tom Vilsack in 2005.

Schultz, who is now a candidate for Congress, has been the target of complaints that his aggressive anti-fraud efforts have consumed significant state funds without yielding much evidence of fraud. His office blames the current problem on reports from local courts.

Both Cerro Gordo’s Kline and legislative Democrats are calling for a closer look:

“To have rejected a ballot based on an error or incorrect information is troubling, to say the least,” Kline said in a letter to Schultz asking for further investigation.

State Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, chairman of the Iowa Senate’s State Government Committee, has scheduled a fact-finding hearing for next week and plans to ask Schultz to appear.

“Most Iowans use an abundance of caution when it comes to denying a citizen their rights — especially when it comes to voting, which is the building block of democracy[.]”

Despite all of the attention paid to false positives, i.e., potentially ineligible voters on the list, these kinds of false negatives (where eligible voters are wrongly excluded from the list) are just as serious, if not more so. It also highlights the need for better data overall; as pressure mounts on election officials to match their lists with other government databases, the consequences of errors in those lists has the potential to block valid voters from being able to cast a ballot. The Quad City Times details a few potential problems in their article examining the controversy:

Officials in several county auditors’ offices said Thursday they realize the [felony] database can contain errors.

Roland Caldwell, the operations manager for the Scott County Auditor’s office, said they have found instances in which an individual was charged with a felony but, after checking with the court system’s online database, they find the charge was reduced. Still, they were on the list of prohibited voters.

“I wouldn’t say very often, but it does happen,” he said.

In addition to reduced charges, some auditors say they have come across cases in which a felon can meet the terms of a court-approved agreement and have the conviction expunged from their record but still be on the list.

The list of prohibited felons isn’t the only database that can have flaws. Some auditors say they have found errors in the state-generated list of the deceased that’s used cull voters from voting rolls.

Some auditors said they even keep track of obituaries in their local newspapers to help keep their rolls clean.

In other words, as election officials are charged with using external sources to validate voter rolls, they will be expected to take steps to ensure that those sources themselves are reliable. It’s a heavy burden, but all just part of the job – and when it doesn’t happen, election officials can expect the kind of criticism we’re seeing in Iowa. The Quad City Times:

“If the secretary of state wants to be the state election official, he owes it to Iowans to do his due diligence, to verify the accuracy of information he’s using to make those decisions,” [Sen. Danielson] said.

This story is one that is definitely going to linger. Stay tuned.

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