DES MOINES, Iowa — An 18-month investigation into voter fraud that has cost nearly $150,000 has led to charges against 16 people in Iowa, many of whom said they mistakenly registered or believed they were eligible to vote.
Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, who launched the investigation and has made ballot security a key issue, said the results show that voter fraud is a problem. But his critics scoff at that argument, saying the investigation confirmed that misconduct is insignificant in Iowa, where about 2.1 million people are registered to vote.
Schultz, a Republican, signed a two-year deal with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation in July 2012 to assign an agent to investigating voter fraud cases fulltime. The contract allowed him to pay as much as $280,000 for the investigations.
Five cases have been dismissed, while five others were resolved in guilty pleas. As part of the plea deals, three people paid fines, one received a suspended sentence and probation, and one is serving five years in prison for perjury and identity theft. So far no cases have gone to trial, though two cases' trials are pending.
Schultz told The Des Moines Register (http://dmreg.co/1cwl44n ) that the results prove the existence of voter fraud in Iowa and bolster his case for more scrutiny at the polls and verification of voters.
"Before, the narrative was that there's no such thing as voter fraud," he said. "That's obviously changed. Iowans expect us to do something when we know there's a problem."
Ballot access advocates and Schultz's critics said the results prove that voter misconduct is statistically insignificant and that it's generally the result of misunderstandings, not fraud.
"Nationally and in Iowa, we just do not see that voter fraud is a big issue," said Bonnie Pitz, president of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Iowa. "The activities from Secretary of State Schultz have just been intimidating."
Three of the guilty pleas involved registration by felons whose voting rights had not been restored. One of them, Nickie Dean Perkins, registered and voted in Marshall County in 2012 under the mistaken belief that his voting rights had been reinstated at the end of his probation.
"If there were no downside to this, it would be a fun case to try. I think we'd have a fairly good shot," said Perkins' attorney, Mark Olberding. "But if I was wrong and he got convicted on both counts, you're looking at upwards of 10 years in prison."
Experts say instances of real, intentional voter fraud are exceedingly rare because the penalties are so stiff while the payoff is so low. Few people are truly willing to risk felony convictions and prison time to secure one more vote for their favorite candidate.
Ben Stone, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said the investigation was a waste of money.
"Secretary Schultz's actions not only waste a tremendous amount of money that should be used to increase access to voting in Iowa," he said. "Ultimately, they make it demonstrably harder for eligible people to vote."
Shultz argues for zero tolerance.
"People have died to give us our right to vote, and we need to protect that right," he said.
The DCI investigations continue for another six months. Shultz said the entire effort shouldn't be judged until it's concluded.
Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com