Iowa Secretary of State, Judicial Watch Spar Over Claim of Voter Over-Registration

By Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.
February 5, 2020Updated: March 24, 2020

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate is disputing an analysis that showed eight counties in the state had more registered voters than their total voting-eligible populations—by a total of nearly 19,000.

The analysis, based on 2017 and 2018 data, was released Feb. 3 by Judicial Watch (JW), a conservative nonprofit that describes itself as promoting “transparency, accountability, and integrity in government, politics and the law.” The organization says its “baseline analysis” is correct, even though it used older data.

The office of Pate, a Republican, said the JW numbers were “patently false.”

“It’s unfortunate this organization continues to put out inaccurate data regarding voter registration, and it’s especially disconcerting they chose the day of the Iowa Caucus to do this,” Pate said in a Feb. 2 statement.

“My office has told this organization, and others who have made similar claims, that their data regarding Iowa is deeply flawed and their false claims erode voter confidence in elections.”

JW President Tom Fitton fired back in a Feb. 3 statement: “It is shameful that the secretary of state of Iowa would mislead Iowans and Americans about the accuracy of the state’s registration rolls.”

Where Is the Data From?

JW relied on 2018 voter registration data that Iowa provided to the federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC) in its analysis. Pate relies on data his office releases every month.

“JW admitted they used old data,” said Kevin Hall, Pate’s communications director, in an email to The Epoch Times.

The original JW release did say it was based on EAC data released in 2019, but didn’t indicate the data was from 2018.

“The EAC data is the gold standard,” Fitton said in a telephone interview with The Epoch Times. He said that JW has successfully used analyses of EAC data in several lawsuits in other states. He questioned the reliability of the data on the SOS website, calling it “informal.”

There are indeed discrepancies between the two data sets. In the EAC data, Iowa had nearly 2.2 million registered voters in 2018. The Secretary of State’s (SOS) website data shows a number nearly 24,000 lower as of Nov. 1, 2018 (pdf). The November SOS data seems the most comparable to the EAC data. The EAC asks states (pdf) for the counts of “individuals who were registered and eligible to vote in the 2018 general election.” Election day was on Nov. 6, 2018, and Iowa allows voters to register up to and including election day.

As of Feb. 3, 2020, the SOS data showed about 2.16 million registered voters (pdf). It appears the state has gone to some lengths in recent years to clean up its voter rolls. The SOS data shows, for instance, that between January and February 2017, more than 75,000 names were purged from the rolls.


The SOS also said JW “greatly underestimated” Iowa’s population counts. JW relied on the Census Bureau’s 2017 counts of citizens over the age of 18. When parsed with the EAC data, eight Iowa counties indeed had registration rates of over 100 percent.

JW said in its original release that it used “the most recent” Census Bureau data, but three days before JW published its analysis, the Census Bureau released the 2018 data, which showed a less than 0.5 percent increase in Iowa’s eligible voting population. It isn’t clear how much the eligible population has changed since then.

Census Bureau estimates show a 1 percent rise in Iowa’s population over 18 years old between 2018 and 2019. But those numbers include non-citizens. Iowa’s population has grown in a large part due to an inflow of immigrants, Migration Policy Institute data indicates. It isn’t clear how much has the population growth bumped the electorate.

The Census Bureau is only slated to release 2019 estimates for citizens over 18 years old in 2021.

Comparing the 2018 Census data and the 2018 EAC data, Iowa still had seven counties with more than 100 percent eligible population registered. Using the latest SOS numbers (from February) instead of the EAC data, five counties still had over 100 percent registration.

All five of those counties have increased their population since 2018, Hall pointed out. Indeed, 2019 Census data shows growth between roughly 0.3 and 7 percent. But those are numbers for the entire population, and aren’t limited to eligible voters.

He says 17-year-olds can register to vote in Iowa and including them “skews” JW’s numbers. He said there were 5,000 of them registered as of Feb. 4, which is less than a quarter of a percent of the state’s registrations. Also, EAC asks states to exclude “persons under the age of 18 registered under a ‘pre-registration’ program.”

The Secretary of State’s office didn’t respond to a question about what kind of data it provided to EAC.

Fitton said in an email to The Epoch Times that the newer data “is consistent with our baseline analysis.”

‘Dirty Voting Rolls’

Impossibly high registration rates aren’t necessarily evidence of voter fraud.

Sometimes, people remain on voter rolls after they’ve left the state or died and, over time, faulty records can accumulate. Also, removing records of those who’ve left the state takes time, because federal law requires the state to send people a notice to confirm their address. Only if people fail to respond and don’t vote in two federal election cycles can the state remove them.

Still, states have an obligation to exert “reasonable effort” to clean up their voter rolls, under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993.

“Dirty voting rolls can mean dirty elections and Iowa needs to undertake a serious effort to address its voting rolls,” Fitton said in a Feb. 3 release.

Even voter registration rates lower than 100 percent of the eligible population may indicate messy rolls since it’s unlikely every single eligible person has registered.

No matter how the data is sliced, Iowa’s overall registration rate is over 90 percent. Meanwhile, based on Census surveys that actually ask people whether they are registered or not, less than 70 percent of eligible Iowans were registered in 2018.

Hall took issue with JW’s inclusion of inactive voters—those who’ve failed to respond to the state’s notice—into its analysis.

“Inactive voters are in the pipeline to be canceled. If a voter is inactive for two successive general election cycles, they are sent a final mailing and canceled,” he said.

Fitton argued that counting inactive registrations is appropriate since a question remains of whether they are cut from the rolls in a timely manner, as required under NVRA. JW has successfully forced several jurisdictions to remove from their rolls voters who have been inactive for too long.

Excluding inactive voters, Iowa’s registration rate would drop to around 85 percent.

Iowa was the first state to kick off the primary election process with its Democratic and Republican caucuses held on Feb. 3. President Donald Trump won all the state’s GOP delegates, getting 97 percent of the votes. The state’s Democratic Party said its results were delayed by technical issues. Partial results as of Feb. 5 showed Pete Buttigieg narrowly ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Roll Cleanup Push

JW has used EAC data to determine there are at least 2.5 million extra voter registrations on the rolls of 378 counties nationwide. It’s been using the data in aid of lawsuits filed to force states into compliance with NVRA.

JW has so far reached three statewide settlements with California, Ohio, and Kentucky to remove millions of ineligible voters from their rolls.

Matthew Vadum contributed to this report.