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ACLU files lawsuit to stop voter registration rule

DES MOINES (AP) — Two civil rights groups have sued Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz to halt a new state rule allowing people to be removed from voter registration lists if their citizenship is questioned.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and the Iowa League of United Latin American Citizens filed the lawsuit Friday in Polk County District Court. The document asks a judge to find the rule, which took effect Wednesday, illegal and issue a court order that prevents its implementation.

Schultz, a Republican, has said the change is needed to reduce voter fraud, an issue he’s championed since taking office in 2011. Critics have called the rule a witch hunt, voter suppression and “a solution in search of a problem.”

“Voting is an area where we are all equal,” ACLU Executive Director Ben Stone said in a written statement. “Politicians shouldn’t make it harder for qualified voters in Iowa to do their duty as citizens to vote. We will always zealously fight for the voting rights of Iowans. And we’ll work to keep government bureaucracies from overstepping the bounds of their authority in a way that compromises citizens’ rights.”

Schultz was not immediately available for comment Saturday. The groups stopped enactment of a similar emergency rule just before the November general election, but Schultz pursued a permanent rule.

The rule allows Schultz to run Iowa’s registered voters through federal immigration lists known as SAVE, the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements program. That program, operated by immigration officials in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, compiles information from a dozen federal government databases about immigrants with temporary work or school visas, naturalized citizens, those in the process of deportation and others.

Any non-citizens appearing on the SAVE list and on Iowa voter registration lists will be sent letters informing them that they may be illegally registered. Failure to prove citizenship within 60 days could result in their removal by their county election officials.

Schultz has requested access to the program but has not yet received federal approval. Other states — including Colorado, Michigan, and Florida — have agreements to access the program to search for noncitizens registered to vote.

The lawsuit says Schultz is exceeding his legal authority, and says only a bipartisan Voter Registration Commission has rulemaking authority when it comes to maintenance of voter registration lists. It also calls the rule vague, and says enforcement “poses a substantial risk of erroneously depriving qualified voters in Iowa of their fundamental right to vote.”

The ACLU also contends that the databases Schultz plans to use contain numerous errors, were never designed to cross-check voters, contain insufficient data to do so comprehensively and put the burden on voters to prove their citizenship if they are identified, rightly or wrongly.

In an interview Wednesday, Schultz said he believes Iowa has a potential problem that needs to be solved.

“I’m trying to do it in a way that we give the voter as much due process as possible, to make sure that we don’t prevent somebody from voting who’s eligible, and to ensure that we have integrity,” he said.

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