Secretary of State proposal would require voter IDs in name of election integrity

Voters cast their ballots at Horace Mann Elementary School in Iowa City on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. --photo by Zak Neumann
Voters cast their ballots at Horace Mann Elementary School in Iowa City on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. –photo by Zak Neumann

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate proposed legislation yesterday that he said would work to ensure the integrity of Iowa’s elections by requiring things like voter ID at polling places and creating an electronic poll book for every Iowa precinct, with voters scanning state-issued IDs or voter registration cards when checking in to polling places. But for some, the move didn’t jibe with Iowa’s already impressive track record for election integrity.

As recently as October, Pate released a statement praising the integrity of Iowa’s elections.

“As the state’s Commissioner of Elections, I can assure you Iowa’s elections are not rigged. My pledge to every Iowan is that you will be able to cast your vote and your vote will count,” he said in the pre-election statement.

In addition to the electronic poll book, Thursday’s proposal includes things like voter signature verification and requiring an ID number for voting by absentee ballot. The bill would also establish post-election audits, which are not currently conducted. The proposal would likely cost the state $1 million.

Many of the specifics are still unknown. Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert said he spent much of Friday trying to find out what exactly was in the legislation but was told that it was not yet finished.

When asked whether the proposal was a surprise he said, “Yes, totally. 100 percent. I didn’t not expect all of this.”

“Iowa ranks right now as one of the top four or five states for voter integrity,” Weipert said. “Our system, the work our auditors do, it doesn’t seem broken, so what are you trying to fix?”

Veronica Fowler, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, voiced a similar concerns.

“I think it’s safe to say that certainly we’re extremely concerned about it,” Fowler said. “We strongly oppose voter IDs. There are already different ways that poll workers can ID voters — student IDs, utility bills. As the secretary of state himself has already said, the integrity of Iowa elections is already strong. He is proposing spending a million dollars fixing a problem that doesn’t exist. It’s a solution in search of a problem.”

She said voter ID laws have a strong impact on the elderly, minorities, low income people and people with disabilities, requiring individuals to “spend additional time and energy and get transportation to exercise what is already their constitutionally assured right to vote.”

She said the proposals didn’t come as a surprise.

“There are a number of voter ID laws all over the country,” she said. “It has been discussed in the past and it will come up again in the future, but we hope to effectively fight it so that it doesn’t happen in Iowa.”

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate. -- photo via the Iowa Secretary of State's Office
Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate. — photo via the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office

In a press release published yesterday on the Secretary of State’s website, Pate said that protecting the integrity of elections is his top priority and that the proposed legislation would help.

“I want to make it easy to vote, but hard to cheat,” he said. “If you don’t have an ID, we will send you a new voter registration card to use at the polls.”

The press release also quotes Pate as saying the bill would streamline the process of checking into the the polls, reducing waiting times. Pate praised Iowa’s record of voter participation and swore to continue encouraging and increasing voter turnout.

“We are one of the top states in the nation for voter registration and voter participation,” he said. “This legislation will not have any negative impact on either of those. Instead, it will help instill confidence in our voting system and let every Iowan know that their vote counts.”

Other proposed changes listed in the press release include:

  • Creating a deadline for proxies to return collected voter registration forms and absentee ballots to the county auditor’s office.
  • Setting the first date to request absentee ballots at 120 days prior to an election.
  • Ensuring uniform, ongoing training for election staff and poll workers.
  • Requiring that county auditors certify their compliance to all state and federal laws and report all suspected instances of election misconduct with the Secretary of State.

Some of the proposals, such as post-election audits, would be expensive, Weipert said, and it was unclear whether the state would be helping to foot the bill for any of those expenses.

“Unless the state pays for it, to me, it would be another unfunded mandate pushed down to the counties,” he said.

The Secretary of State’s Office did not respond Friday to a request for further comment and clarification.

Voter ID laws in other states came under fire last year. Federal courts struck down parts of voter ID laws in Texas and Wisconsin and the entirety of a voter ID requirement in North Carolina, which was described as an effort to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” In December, a federal appeals court upheld a Virginia law, although attorneys for the state’s Democratic Party argued that the rule would have a disparate impact on minority voters.

In the Wisconsin decision, U.S. District Judge James D. Peterson noted that “a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities. To put it bluntly, Wisconsin’s strict version of voter ID law is a cure worse than the disease.”

In Iowa, a two-year voter fraud investigation performed by Pate’s predecessor, Matt Schultz, unearthed 117 instances of illegally cast votes, with charges against 27 individuals for voter fraud, according to a 2014 report. The investigation cost nearly $250,000.

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