IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Civil rights activists filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking to block Iowa's Republican secretary of state from enacting rules to purge foreign nationals from Iowa's voter registration list and make it easier to file allegations of voter fraud.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the League of United Latin American Citizens accused Secretary of State Matt Schultz of abusing his power in a plot to disenfranchise Latinos and other voters ahead of the presidential election in Iowa, a key battleground state.
"To begin a purge of registered voters so close to the fall elections is unconscionable," said Joseph Enriquez Henry, state director of LULAC, a Latino and Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group. "We urge Mr. Schultz to cease his political activity and to keep politics out of the elected office that he holds."
Schultz issued emergency rules on July 20 — without any public notice or input — giving his office authority to compare Iowa's list of 2.1 million registered voters against lists of foreign nationals living in Iowa obtained from unspecified state and federal agencies. The rules say any matches should be turned over to investigators to determine whether they are the same person and whether they are still non-U.S. citizens who should be ineligible to vote.
If they are thought to be ineligible voters, Schultz's office will send notice telling them they may be illegally registered, a class D felony, and should cancel their registrations immediately. They would be given 14 days to dispute the notice; if they fail to do so, Schultz's office would take steps to remove them from the list. The rules instruct local elections officials to challenge any absentee ballots filed by such voters and to send in their prior voting histories to Schultz's office.
The second rule allows individuals to report allegations of voter fraud to Schultz's office and says all complaints "shall be forwarded to the appropriate agency for further investigation and follow-up as deemed necessary."
The petition filed by the groups in district court in Des Moines alleges that Schultz's office exceeded its power in adopting the rules and enacted them improperly on an emergency basis. The rules are also too vague and "pose a substantial risk of erroneously depriving qualified voters in Iowa their fundamental right to vote," the petition argues, asking a judge to declare them invalid and halt their implementation.
In issuing the rules, Schultz's office said that "notice and public participation are contrary to the public interest" because the procedures had to be in place before the Nov. 6 presidential election so that complaints are handled uniformly and investigated properly.
Schultz received the petition late Wednesday and will have no comment until he reviews it Thursday with the attorney general's office, which represents state agencies in lawsuits, spokesman Chad Olsen said.
Ben Stone, executive director of the ACLU, said the rules do not even specify which lists of foreign nationals would be used to remove voters, so there's no way to know whether they are accurate. He also said state law requires those making allegations of voter fraud to sign sworn statements, a requirement the emergency rules remove.
Henry, the LULAC official, said that he believed the purge would erroneously identify Latinos in Iowa, especially new citizens and those with last names similar to foreign nationals. He said his group planned to register up to 40,000 citizens to vote this summer, and is worried some of them will be disenfranchised by "a witch hunt upon the minority community in Iowa."
Schultz is serving his first term as the state's top election official and has come under fire from Democrats, who have accused him of running his office in a partisan way. He has made it a top priority to lobby for a law that would require voters to show identification in Iowa.
The lawsuit comes as President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are locked in a tight race for Iowa's six electoral votes. Romney was in Des Moines earlier Wednesday, and Obama is expected to spend three days campaigning in Iowa next week.