Iowa judge halts proposed voter removal rule

DES MOINES – A judge on Wednesday issued an order that prevents Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz from moving forward with a new rule that could have removed voters from state registration rolls if their names showed up as noncitizens in a federal database.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa filed a lawsuit in 2012 challenging the rule, which Schultz first proposed just before the November general election last year.

The ACLU argued the rule intimidates immigrant voters, including those who may have recently become citizens, and discourages them from going to the polls or registering.

The groups sought a temporary injunction that would prevent Schultz from moving forward with attempts to identify voters or send letters threatening or recommending their removal from voter rolls until the case can be heard in court.

“Iowa voters should take heart, because the court order today will prevent the Secretary of State from using a flawed and unreliable system to purge voters or otherwise intimidate them while the case moves forward,” said Ben Stone, the executive director for the ACLU of Iowa, in a statement.

Schultz said in a statement he’s disappointed with the decision but he’ll abide by the judge’s temporary injunction. He also said he looks forward to a final resolution after a hearing on the rule scheduled for March.

“We believe that the rule provides safeguards to protect the voting process and I will continue fighting to ensure the integrity of Iowa’s election system in common-sense ways,” he said.

The voter removal rule went into effect in March. It 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.

But Shultz said “out of an abundance of caution” he chose not to begin using the federal database until the judge ruled on the temporary injunction.

District Court Judge Scott Rosenberg said in Wednesday’s ruling that the ACLU has shown that the rule would have a chilling effect on the right to vote and could cause irreparable harm, justifying a temporary injunction.

He also concluded that the ACLU has shown that its arguments should proceed to trial.

The ACLU lawsuit claims Schultz does not have the legal authority under Iowa law to push forward a voter removal rule.

“The statutes and case law do not present clear answers to the petitioners’ arguments,” Rosenberg said. “Therefore, the petitioners have demonstrated a sufficient likelihood they will eventually prevail on the merits.”

He made clear, however, that his order is not a determination of the allegations in the lawsuit.

“The court will address these issues at a later date,” he wrote.