DES MOINES (AP) — After a lawsuit and a barrage of criticism, Iowa’s top elections official on Wednesday dropped key parts of rules governing how his office will remove foreign nationals from the state’s voter registration database.
Three weeks after a presidential election that put Iowa in the national spotlight, Republican Secretary of State Matt Schultz announced changes to rules that spell out how his office will use a federal database to verify the citizenship of ineligible non-citizens and remove them from the rolls.
“The tremendous amount of public attention and input has been helpful in fine-tuning the original administrative rules filed this summer,” Schultz said in a statement.
Without public notice or input, Schultz in July filed emergency rules giving his office the authority to compare Iowa’s list of 2.1 million registered voters against lists of foreign nationals living in Iowa obtained from unspecified government agencies. The rule required Schultz’s office to send them notice they may be illegally registered, a class D felony, and gave them 14 days to file a challenge before they would be removed.
Schultz explained that those rules were part of the state’s application to access a citizenship database from the Department of Homeland Security, which he was hoping to use before the election to check the status of more than 3,500 potential noncitizens he identified.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the League of United Latin American Citizens filed a lawsuit arguing the rules were improperly adopted. Judge Mary Pat Gunderson in September blocked them from going into effect, saying Schultz did not have justification for rushing them through without input. She also said the rules “created fear that new citizens will lose their right to vote and/or be charged with a felony, and cause some qualified voters to feel deterred from even registering to vote.”
Schultz said Wednesday he had changed the rules to give anyone targeted for removal 30 days to file a challenge instead of 14, and to require his office to send a second notice with another 30-day response period if it does not receive a response to the first. Anyone who receives a letter requesting information on their citizenship would also be allowed to request as much time as needed to comply with the request.
Schultz said the changes also specify which federal database he will use to verify citizenship status after critics said the rule was too vague.
Lastly, Schultz said he was dropping a rule that allowed individuals to report allegations of voter fraud to his office and required complaints to be forwarded to law enforcement for investigation. Critics said the rule made it easier to file complaints by removing a requirement that they include a sworn statement attesting to allegations; Schultz denied that was the intent. He said a “misinformation campaign” had created confusion over the rule, and that he now believes existing procedures for filing complaints are sufficient.
The announcement comes before a Friday hearing in which Gunderson will consider several motions in the lawsuit, including the state’s request to dismiss it.
Joseph Henry, state director of LULAC, said he believed the changes were an attempt to defeat the lawsuit. But he said the groups would keep fighting plans to use the federal database to determine voter eligibility, saying it would have a chilling effect even though voting by noncitizens is not a major problem.
“Money would be better spent on providing information on how to vote, not to figure out ways to prevent people from voting,” he said.