DES MOINES (AP) — A District Court judge on Friday halted Iowa's Republican secretary of state from implementing voting rules he established without public input.
Polk County District Court Judge Mary Pat Gunderson said in her ruling that Secretary of State Matt Schultz could have followed normal rule-making procedures and that emergency rules were unnecessary before the November election.
Schultz, a former member of the Council Bluffs City Council, created two rules in July without a public hearing, using an emergency administrative process. One would have challenged votes of individuals who appear on state and federal databases as noncitizens. A second rule would have made it easier to report alleged voter fraud.
He said he feared noncitizens would try to vote in November.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa filed a lawsuit to stop the rules.
They claimed that Schultz exceeded his rule-making powers and that the rules were vague and could mistakenly deprive qualified voters of their right to vote.
While Gunderson said she was not issuing a ruling on those arguments and would consider them at a trial later, she issued a temporary injunction on the rules, which prevents Schultz from enacting them until the court can hear the full arguments.
She did not agree with the argument Schultz made that he needed to pass the rules quickly because he had too little time before the November election to go through the normal process of hearings and public input.
Schultz has claimed he compared voter registration records with an Iowa Department of Transportation database and found more than 3,000 people registered to vote who were not citizens. He has been negotiating with the federal government to make another comparison to an immigration database purported to be more accurate.
Gunderson said Schultz could have started the process of making the rules earlier and that the time restraints he was under were self-imposed.
“The secretary was in office for 18 months during which time he could have initiated the normal rule-making procedures. At a minimum he had over six months to do so after he learned of the alleged voter discrepancies on the lists in March 2012,” she wrote.
Gunderson said the civil rights groups have shown that they and the voters they represent will suffer irreparable harm if the rules weren't halted. She concluded the rules created confusion and mistrust in the voter registration process.
“They have created fear that new citizens will lose their right to vote and/or be charged with a felony, and cause some qualified voters to feel deterred from even registering to vote,” she said.
As a result, she said Schultz didn't have sufficient reason to justify rushing the rules through using an emergency process.
She said the new rule that makes it easier to challenge a voter's registration eliminates a requirement that the person complaining must swear to the facts and face prosecution for making false allegations.
She said current law provides adequate procedure to challenge a voter's qualification.
An ACLU spokeswoman said she was grateful for the decision.
“It will protect eligible, qualified voters in Iowa while the case on a permanent injunction is ongoing,” said Rita Bettis, the group's legislative director.
Attorney General Tom Miller's office is representing Schultz.
“This case involves finding a delicate balance between using the tools available to enforce an existing state law and ensuring that our government does not deter even a single person from casting a vote,” said Miller, a Democrat. “In this case we argued that Secretary Schultz's emergency rules would have enabled his office to gain access to existing, real-time federal records that can provide an extra safeguard to anyone who's voting eligibility has been called into question. We will continue to work with Secretary Schultz to strike the right balance."
Schultz said he believes the ruling could open the door for noncitizens “to continue voting in Iowa elections.”
“I am committed to fair and honest elections. I worked to prevent noncitizens from voting using a fair and reasonable process and that is still my intent,” he said in a statement. “Although I am very disappointed in this ruling, this is just one of many steps in the litigation process and I am resolved to continuing to fight for the people of Iowa and protecting the integrity of our elections.”