By Sheena Dooley | Iowa Watchdog
DES MOINES – Iowa’s top election official told lawmakers Tuesday his office went out of its way to protect voter rights when enacting emergency rules to remove noncitizens from the state’s list of registered voters.
Secretary of State Matt Schultz told the Legislature’s Administrative Rules Committee he took extra steps — such as providing hearings for noncitizens on voter rolls and checking their status by using an up-to-date federal immigration database — to ensure against falsely accusing people of voter fraud. In no way was his office targeting specific minorities, he told lawmakers.
He denied allegations he was trying to purge voter rolls, calling his measure an anti-purge rule.
“This is not meant to discriminate against anyone,” Schultz said. “I can tell you my intentions. I am trying to do my job. We are trying to do what’s right. We do not want to go out and accuse someone who is a citizen of the United States of not being a citizen. That’s why we are trying to be very reasonable in how we execute this rule.”
Lawmakers and seven members of the public spent more than an hour questioning the rules Schultz, a Republican, quietly enacted in July, with some saying his directive was too vague, pushed through too quickly without public input. It also comes after the 70-day deadline set in Iowa law to remove individuals from voter-registration lists.
Committee members will delay taking action on the matter until a public hearing in October, according to Rep. Jo Oldson, D-Des Moines.
“I hear what’s going on around the country and then Iowa wants to join in at the last minute,” said Sen. Jack Kibbie, D-Emmetsburg. “Whether you call it suppressed voting or not, none of the county auditors I talked to feel there have been illegal votes in the past.”
Schultz began vetting voter lists in March after returning from a national conference for secretaries of state.
Schultz found just more than 3,500 possible noncitizens who were registered to vote, but he waited until late July to enact emergency rules after the federal government said it would provide his office with the immigration database.
Kibbie questioned why Schultz failed to bring the issue to lawmakers during the latest session, which didn’t end until May.
“It’s my job as secretary of state to make sure we have honest and fair elections and protect voter rights,” Schultz said. “I can’t ignore these numbers.”
Federal officials have yet to sign a memorandum of understanding to provide the database to Schultz’s office. But Schultz told lawmakers he expects to receive the database in the near future, although he couldn’t provide specifics.
Critics of the emergency rules and some lawmakers on the committee questioned whether there is time to vet voter lists, given the November election is only weeks away. Once the state receives the database, Schultz’s office must compare it to the list of the 3,500 immigrants whose status is in question. Officials will then send letters to the individuals, giving them 14 days to respond. If they fail to respond, another letter will be sent giving them an additional 14 days. At that point, the matter will be turned over to counties involved, Schultz said.
Iowa immigration lawyer Della Arriaga told the committee it can take weeks or months for naturalized citizens to collect the needed documentation to confirm their status. The rules also don’t address children whose parents are in the military and born abroad or those adopted from other countries. It addresses only those who come in as a legal immigrant, she said.
“This proposal doesn’t make sense,” Arriaga said. “It’s based on a person’s A number. Not all immigrants have A numbers.”
Schultz told the committee no action would be taken until his office receives the list. He later said he turned the state’s list over to an investigator with the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation. His office signed a two-year contract with the department to provide an investigator at a yearly cost of up to $140,000, he told lawmakers.
He could not provide lawmakers with the total cost of the emergency rules.
“It seems to me that you grabbed the rules two months ago, they got published a month ago and we are now quickly headed through September and we still don’t have the system,” Oldson said. “I’m a little mystified. When you sit in the public eye perception is pretty darn important. You said you didn’t want anyone questioning why you are doing this. There are a lot of concerns. We have a public perception problem even if your intent is good.”
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