A report by a conservative legal organization about voter registration rates in eight Iowa counties has been cited to promote baseless suggestions of voter fraud.
Amid the Iowa caucuses, the founder of a conservative group and Iowa’s secretary of state, a Republican, went head-to-head on Twitter over voter registration rates in the state.
The organization, Judicial Watch, published a Feb. 3 press release that claimed that “eight Iowa counties have more voter registrations than their eligible voting-age population.” Its founder, Tom Fitton, made the same claim a day earlier on Twitter — prompting Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate to dispute the findings as “false claims” that “erode voter confidence in elections.”
The allegations took root online with a clear theme: voter fraud.
Fitton said in an interview with FactCheck.org that his organization’s announcement didn’t allege voter fraud in Iowa, but that was a pervading interpretation spread by those touting the findings.
Charlie Kirk of the conservative youth organization Turning Point USA, for example, wrote on Twitter: “WOW: One day before the Iowa Caucus, it’s been revealed that EIGHT Iowa counties have more adults registered to vote than voting-aged adults living there … Don’t let voter fraud steal the 2020 election.”
The same text as Kirk’s tweet appeared on Facebook pages like “Walk Away Democrats,” and a graphic with the phrase “voter fraud” was used to tout the findings in a Facebook meme and by the conservative website the Gateway Pundit. Facebook and Twitter posts accused Democrats of “cheating.” One website, tediummedia.com, spread a story about the findings whose headline read, “Voter Fraud Ahead of Iowa Caucus, More than 18,000 EXTRA Names on Voter Rolls.”
But Judicial Watch’s findings are not evidence of voter fraud, according to experts, who also contested the group’s methodology.
A spokeswoman for Judicial Watch confirmed that the organization relied on two sets of data: U.S. Census figures, which showed the county-by-county population of the Citizen Voting Age Population, or CVAP, based on the 2014-2018 American Community Survey five-year estimates, and 2018 total voter registration tallies from the Election Administration and Voting Survey by the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission.
Using the most up-to-date voter registration figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office would tell a different story. Looking at total voter registration figures updated as of Feb. 3, five of the eight counties have more total registered voters than voting-age citizens. Total registration includes active and inactive voters. Looking at just active voters from the state’s most recent figures, only one of the eight counties — Dallas County — has more active registered voters (59,667) than the population of voting-age citizens estimated by the Census (57,045).
Even so, that would compare five-year estimates of the population from 2014-2018 with 2020 registration figures. The bigger issue is using Judicial Watch’s methodology as a barometer for nefarious behavior.
David Schultz, a professor of political science and legal studies at Hamline University and professor of law at the University of Minnesota, said he doesn’t “know anyone credible using what Judicial Watch is using as a measure” to determine voter fraud.
“This is a real apples and oranges kind of problem here,” Schultz said in a phone interview. “We don’t really know [what] the different populations of these different counties are because these data are old.”
In other words, we don’t have concrete 2020 population figures for the counties to compare to 2020 voter registration figures.
And, Schultz said, people don’t typically take the time to contact their local governments when they move — meaning they remain on the voting rolls after they leave, for at least some time.
(Registered voters in Iowa could be deemed inactive, for example, if they haven’t voted or updated their registration information in a four-year span or if certain mailings are returned as undeliverable, according to a spokesman for the secretary of state. Under state law, if a voter’s record has been deemed inactive for “two successive general elections,” that registration is to be canceled.)
“How are they accounting for in-migration, out-migration?” Schultz, who teaches research methodology courses, said. “If one of my grad students did a paper like this and didn’t talk about some of these methodology issues, I would have some real problems [with that].”
Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University and voter fraud expert, recently wrote about the issue in a blog post after Judicial Watch issued legal threats to several states over their voter rolls.
“Registration is a hard count of individuals, Census estimates of CVAP are survey estimates and projections. Among other things: the latter comes with a margin of error,” Levitt wrote. “These metrics cover different time periods. The CVAP estimates are estimates over a (usually) multi-year period, often several years behind any current snapshot of a registration count.”
“They measure different things, at different times, with different types of levels of certainty,” Levitt said in an email to FactCheck.org. He said it’s “bad science to claim that a disconnect between those two numbers means that there’s fraud.”
Levitt said that some researchers “may be interested in a voter registration rate that attempts to assess current registration as a percentage of eligible population using the two different measures — the EAVS registration snapshot and census population estimates.” But, he said, “every careful researcher I know fully understands the disconnect between those data sources, and either attempts to account for them or only uses the measures for broad comparisons over time rather than the silly ‘over 100%’ or ‘under 100%’ distinction Judicial Watch is attempting to make.”
Fitton told us he stands by his organization’s analysis and cited legal victories the group has secured to force the maintenance of voter rolls. Judicial Watch sued Los Angeles County and California, for example, and reached a settlement in 2019 in which the county agreed to remove inactive voters after a period of time, pursuant to the National Voter Registration Act (and a 2018 Supreme Court decision that found such removal is mandatory).
The settlement noted there was no admission of wrongdoing. It also made no mention of voter fraud.
Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here.
“Election Laws of Iowa.” Legislative Services Agency, General Assembly of Iowa. 2019.
Fitton, Tom. President, Judicial Watch. Phone interview with FactCheck.org. 5 Feb 2020.
Iowa Secretary of State’s Office. “State of Iowa Voter Registration Totals | County.” 3 Feb 2020.
“Judicial Watch: Eight Iowa Counties Have Total Registration Rates Larger than Eligible Voter Population – at Least 18,658 Extra Names on Iowa Voting Rolls.” Press release, Judicial Watch. 3 Feb 2020.
Levitt, Justin. Law professor, Loyola Marymount University. Email to FactCheck.org. 4 Feb 2020.
Levitt, Justin. “Here come the latest purge demands.” Election Law Blog. 3 Jan 2020.
“MEDIA RELEASE: Official data rebuts false claims regarding Iowa voter registration.” Press release, Iowa Secretary of State’s Office. 2 Feb 2020.
Schultz, David. Professor of political science and legal studies at Hamline University and professor of law at the University of Minnesota. Phone interview with FactCheck.org. 4 Feb 2020.
U.S. Census. Citizen Voting Age Population by Race and Ethnicity. 31 Jan 2020.