DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz did not have the authority to create a new rule aimed at ridding voter registration rolls of voters who didn't appear to be U.S. citizens, a judge said Wednesday.
Polk County Judge Scott Rosenberg delivered a victory to the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa, which sued Schultz over the rule. He tried to pass it as an emergency rule just before the November 2012 general election. Another judge halted the rule before the election, concluding that it created confusion and mistrust in the voter registration process.
Schultz, however, proceeded to pass a similar rule through the regular rulemaking process last year but it too was halted by Rosenberg, who in September issued a temporary injunction preventing Schultz from acting on it until the court could further review the legal questions. Rosenberg said then that the rule would have a chilling effect on the right to vote and could cause irreparable harm.
The lawsuit claims Schultz does not have the legal authority under Iowa law to push forward a voter removal rule.
Rosenberg said in his ruling Wednesday that state law does not authorize Schultz to create a rule that would cancel a voter's registration based on citizenship questions.
A state law allows cancellation of voter registration only for six reasons: if a voter dies, registers in another jurisdiction, requests cancellation in writing, is convicted of a felony, is declared incompetent, or has been inactive for two successive general elections.
Rosenberg also concluded Schultz does not have the authority to compare state voter registration records with a federal immigration database.
He ordered the rule stricken and said Iowa's secretary of state is "enjoined from taking any action" pursuant to the rule.
A spokesman for Schultz said he is reviewing the ruling and plans to appeal.
"The right to vote is fundamental and should never be used as a divisive tool for political gain," Rita Bettis, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said in a statement. "The long-fought decision today affirms that the Secretary of State may not avoid the legislative process in executing the duties of his office."
She said the federal database Schultz had planned to use — called SAVE, or the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements — was not designed to provide a reliable or complete check on the citizenship of registered voters, and its use for that purpose was never approved by the Legislature.
Schultz's office never used the SAVE database, because of the injunction issued last year by Rosenberg.
The SAVE database was not needed to investigate voter fraud cases anyway, according to an email obtained last month by The Associated Press under the public records law. The agent leading Iowa's voter fraud investigation told Schultz's aides in August that he already had a "more accurate" way of getting that information through Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Several noncitizens are among the 26 people charged with voting illegally during the two-year investigation Schultz launched. It concluded last month. Another 80 cases have been referred to county prosecutors to decide whether to file charges.
Schultz, who has announced he will run for U.S. Rep. Tom Latham's House seat in Iowa's 3rd Congressional District, has been criticized for his decision to pay the Iowa Division of Criminal investigation up to $280,000 in federal grant money to launch the two-year investigation.
The rule he tried to implement would have set up a process to remove voters from registration rolls if Schultz could confirm their citizenship by comparing state records with the SAVE database.
The ACLU and LULAC argued the rule intimidates immigrant voters, including those who may have recently become citizens, and discourages them from going to the polls or registering.
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