Immigrant Advocates Again Voice Concerns Over New Voter-Registration Rules

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Des Moines Register, September 11, 2012

Immigrant Advocates Again Voice Concerns Over New Voter-Registration Rules

New state rules meant to identify noncitizens on Iowa’s voter rolls could have the unintended effect of intimidating eligible voters, several Iowans and immigrant advocates told a state panel on Tuesday.

The rules at issue – passed this summer through an emergency process without public input – outline procedures for the Iowa Secretary of State’s office to use a federal database to verify the citizenship status of registered voters in Iowa.

Secretary of State Matt Schultz has been seeking access to the database for several months, after determining using state Department of Transportation records that more than 3,500 people who are in the country legally but are not citizens are registered to vote in Iowa.

Tapping the federal data would allow Schultz’s office to determine more accurately which of those voters are not citizens and thus ineligible to vote. The new rules are meant to satisfy the federal government’s demands for how the database will be used.

In Tuesday’s meeting of the Iowa Legislature’s Administrative Rules Review Committee, Schultz argued that the rules will actually provide more due process for voters and ensure that Iowa doesn’t pursue a purge like the one undertaken this year in Florida that potentially throws out eligible voters with the ineligible.

“The point is not to chill the vote,” he said, adding, “This is not meant to discriminate against anybody.”

But officials with the ACLU and a Latino group as well as naturalized citizens and advocates to the immigrant community said the effect of the rules could be just the opposite.

“We are sincerely concerned that Secretary of State Matt Schultz’s actions are having a chilling and intimidating effect on the willingness of the Latino community to vote,” Joseph Enriquez Henry, president of the Iowa council of the League of United Latino American Citizens, told the committee.

State Sen. Thomas Courtney, D-Burlington, said he’s heard the same thing when talking with residents of his district, which is among the most heavily Latino in the state.

“They’re scared to death of this,” he told Schultz at the meeting. “They think you’re trying to stop them from voting.”

Part of the concern revolves around two letters that would be sent to registered voters identified as being noncitizens. Even if the voters were in fact citizens, they could still be intimidated out of voting by an official letter threatening them with a felony charge, the advocates said. Or, they may have difficulty obtaining the necessary documents to prove their citizenship within the timeframe required.

Schultz, in response, reiterated that the new rules and the efforts to tap the federal database are intended specifically to guard against citizens being wrongly identified as ineligible to vote.

If voters do feel intimidated against casting a ballot this year, that could be the most immediate effect of Schultz’s effort to verify eligibility in this hotly contested presidential election season. His office still has not yet gained access to the federal database, and a state deadline for removing voters from the registration rolls has already passed.

That means that the only way an ineligible voter’s vote could be rejected is if local election authorities are notified of the voter’s ineligibility and challenge the voter personally when he or she attempts to vote.

In addition to the database checks of voter eligibility, though, Schultz said Tuesday that the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigations is also looking into those more than 3,500 potential ineligible voters.

A DCI official has been tasked with investigating voter fraud, and Schultz said his office has turned over the list of names gleaned from the Department of Transportation for further investigation. He could not say, however, what the nature of the DCI investigation was or whether it would yield results apart from the Secretary of State’s office’s use of the federal database on citizenship status.

The committee that held the hearing Tuesday provides legislative oversight on rules drafted and enacted by state agencies, but could not strike down or change the voter-registration rules at issue in this case because they were enacted under emergency procedures.

Schultz also is seeking to have the rules enacted by the typical means, which will entail a public hearing on them and further discussion and potential action by the committee.

Tags: 2012 election, ACLU, Iowa Legislature, League of United Latino American Citizens, Matt Schultz, Thomas Courtney, voter registration


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