Iowa lawmakers question Schultz over 2012 voting problem

Senate hearing called in wake of Cerro Gordo County voting incident

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Editor's Note: A version of this story was posted Feb. 3, 2014 with a word not inadvertently dropped from the fourth paragraph. There are indications that the database used to restore voting rights was not updated with 100 percent accuracy. This information was changed at 7:20 a.m. on Feb. 4, 2014.

DES MOINES – State lawmakers and Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz ended a politically charged hearing Monday on problems associated with Iowa’s voting system vowing to work together to find solutions to ensure that all votes cast by eligible participants are properly counted in future elections.

Monday’s Senate hearing was called in the wake of reports that came to light last week indicating that three valid 2012 ballots cast in Cerro Gordo County were improperly rejected based on inaccurate voting eligibility information indicating the trio were convicted felons to had lost their voting rights.

In testifying before the Senate State Government Committee, Schultz said his office has been the target of “baseless attacks by the media” because his agency merely acts as a “filing cabinet” for information – good or bad -- supplied by the Iowa Judicial Branch and 99 county auditors that creates a “multi-level” verification problem.

Schultz, who is a GOP candidate in Iowa 3rd congressional district, also said problems date back to an executive order former Gov. Tom Vilsack issues in 2005 that restored voting rights for qualifying – but not all – felons, and there are indications the database was not updated with 100 percent accuracy. The problem came to light when a state Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) agent working with Schultz’s office determined three people whose names should not have been on the ineligible voter list had votes they case in the 2012 election rejected by a Cerro Gordo County election panel.

“That’s a travesty, that’s a problem and we think it needs a solution,” Schultz told committee members. “It shouldn’t happen.”

Schultz recommended that county sheriffs be tasked with researching the criminal history of individuals identified as potential felons who have cast provisional ballots to determine if an individual’s right to vote was ever revoked and, if it was, it it was later restored. He also called for a task force of representatives from his office, the governor’s office, the Legislature, state and county court officials, and county auditors to evaluate the best way moving forward to improve the accuracy of the felon file currently containing 46,768 records.

“It’s unfortunate this committee hasn’t taken voting fraud seriously until now,” said Schultz, who has pressed for voter identification and other election-law changes that have stalled in the split-control Legislature.

Committee member Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, said he didn’t appreciate the tone of Schultz’s opening statement to the committee and expressed concern that “miscues” like what happened in Cerro Gordo County run counter to state efforts to provide a “welcoming” process for voters.

Committee member Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, noting Schultz’s office will have spent $240,000 this year to probe voter fraud – an effort that has netted 26 arrests and five guilty pleas – while his agency is still hand-inputting some voting data via a “technologically unsophisticated” system.

“That’s embarrassing in 2014,” said McCoy, who also called it “a reach” on Schultz’s part to attach blame to Vilsack for problems surfacing nine years later.

Schultz noted that he inherited a problem that would not have come to light had he not had a DCI agent probing voting irregularities that found three ballots improperly rejected but another five that were cast but disqualified because the voters were not eligible to participate in the 2012 election.

Brad Anderson, a Democrat running for Secretary of State in 2014, said Monday’s testimony confirms the office needs to be modernized, calling it “unprecedented and unacceptable” that three eligible Iowa voters had their 2012 vote thrown out because of poor record keeping.

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