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ACLU renews lawsuit to stop voter removal rule

DES MOINES (AP) — Civil liberties groups have renewed their court battle with Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz in their effort to stop him from using a federal immigration database to try to find voters registered in Iowa who may not be citizens.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa filed documents on Aug. 26 asking a judge to rule on a lawsuit they filed last year or to at least issue a temporary order to keep Schultz from using the data until the lawsuit can be decided.

The lawsuit revolves around a voter removal rule Schultz proposed that went into effect March 27.

The rule sets up a process to remove voters from registration rolls if Schultz cannot confirm their citizenship by comparing state records with a federal immigration database.

After months of negotiations Schultz obtained permission from the federal government Aug. 14 to get access to the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements program, called SAVE. It’s administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of the Department of Homeland Security and used to confirm immigrant citizenship status to determine eligibility for certain federal benefits.

Schultz plans to match Iowa Department of Transportation lists in which people self-identify as non-citizens with voter registration lists. Non-citizens would be checked through the SAVE program to see if they recently became a citizen. Schultz’s office would send letters to those not listed as citizens in SAVE, informing them of a potential discrepancy.

Voters would have 60 days to respond or request additional time to gather needed documents. If a first letter goes unanswered, a second letter would be sent to the individual, prompting another 60-day period to respond or request more time for document gathering. The letter also would tell the individual that registering to vote without citizenship is a felony.

If the person cannot prove citizenship, the office will forward the information to the county. And after the registration has been challenged, the county auditor must hold a hearing to determine the eligibility of the voter.

The ACLU and LULAC claim such a process will intimidate immigrants.

ACLU attorney Rita Bettis said the lawsuit now centers on whether Schultz has the authority under Iowa law to remove voters by comparing state records with federal immigration data.

“There is no statute authorizing the maintenance of the voter registration list on the basis of citizenship through comparison with federal immigration databases accessible through the SAVE system,” court documents said.

The groups also said under Iowa law the Voter Rights Commission, not the secretary of state, may create rules for maintaining voter registration lists.

They claim their members will suffer irreparable harm if Schultz carries out plans to remove or threaten to remove numerous Iowans from the voter rolls “without adequate authority or precision.”

They said Iowa elections have operated cleanly for decades without the rule.

Schultz, a Republican, said in a statement he plans to use the SAVE program as a tool to ensure election integrity without suppressing eligible voters.

“While the ACLU may not care about election integrity, it’s my job to do so in a thoughtful, common-sense way. The process of utilizing the SAVE database may take some time, but ensuring election integrity without voter suppression has been and will continue to be my approach,” he said.

He has said there’s plenty of precedence for secretaries of state implementing such rules. He believes Iowa could have thousands of registered voters who are not U.S. citizens.

Schultz attempted to pass the voter removal rule a year ago through an emergency rulemaking process but a judge temporarily halted it after the ACLU and LULAC sued. The judge then said it was improper for Schultz to try to push them through quickly just weeks before the November 2012 election.

Schultz has made fighting voter fraud a priority since taking office in 2011. He also has pushed for a law that would require voters to show photo identification to vote, and he is paying an Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agent to look into voter fraud cases and file charges against those suspected of voting without legal citizenship.

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