Shorter Paul Pate: Iowa elections clean, but let's make it harder for people to vote

Following the standard Republican playbook, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate announced a series of steps today that would make it harder for thousands of Iowans to exercise their right to vote. He produced no evidence of any fraud problems his proposals would solve, which isn’t surprising, because Iowa is already one of the most highly-rated states for electoral integrity.

Pate did not provide a copy of draft legislation he has been discussing with Iowa House and Senate Republican leaders. The centerpiece proposal, of course, is requiring photo ID to cast a ballot. In every state where Republicans have introduced such requirements, eligible voters who do not have driver’s licenses or passports have been disenfranchised. Driver’s licenses from other states will not be considered valid, which will cause problems for many students or others who have moved to Iowa. Pate confirmed his bill “wouldn’t allow use of student IDs as valid identification to vote.”

Notably, three of the six Iowa counties Hillary Clinton carried in November have large student populations (Johnson, Story, Black Hawk).

No voter impersonation fraud has ever been confirmed in Iowa, and only ten such cases have been identified nationally since 2000. Studies have shown voter ID laws do little to prevent any real fraud. Pate acknowledged today that our state’s elections are clean, and some 7 percent of eligible voters don’t have a driver’s license. That works out to at least 150,000 people. (More than 2 million Iowans are registered to vote, and some eligible voters are not registered.)

Why make it harder for 150,000 Iowans to vote? A cynic would note that Pate was elected by only 20,000 votes statewide (a less than 2 percent margin) in 2014. Keeping thousands of students and low-income Iowans from voting sounds like a great job security plan for the secretary of state.

Naturally, Pate denies any partisan political motives. Today he pretended he’s just trying to do what people want:

“Poll after poll has shown us that Iowans support voter ID. In fact, a Gallup Poll in August showed 80 percent of Americans favor voter ID,” Pate says. “…Polls also show a lot of folks to do not have confidence in the voting system. Well, I want to assure Iowans their vote is secure, but to do that, we need to upgrade technology to keep up with the times.”

Give me a break. Republicans push voter ID legislation everywhere they have power for one simple reason: people without a driver’s license represent Democratic-leaning groups. Turnout in Milwaukee, Wisconsin was dramatically lower for the 2016 presidential election, with the biggest declines in the precincts with the highest concentration of poverty.

In a news release, Pate promised, “I want to make it easy to vote, but hard to cheat. If you don’t have an ID, we will send you a new voter registration card to use at the polls.”

Iowa’s projected revenues are down significantly. Lawmakers will have to make at least $100 million in spending cuts just to make ends meet for the current fiscal year. I will be shocked if Republicans find the $500,000 Pate estimates it would cost to provide voter ID cards. More likely, they will pass the voter ID requirement and let 150,000 Iowans–many of whom do not drive–deal with the hassle of getting the right kind of card before the next election. If many fail to do so, as has happened in all other states with similar laws, so much the better for Republican candidates.

Radio Iowa’s O.Kay Henderson reported,

Pate is also calling for voters who cast absentee ballots to put their driver’s license number on the ballot, so election staff can search voter registration rolls and confirm the voters’ signature is legitimate. Pate’s staff just cross referenced DOT records and found seven percent of the Iowans who are currently registered to vote do not have an Iowa drivers license and would have to get an ID card from his office or use their passport or military ID to vote.

So Iowans would also need a photo ID to vote with an absentee ballot, an option exercised by more than 40 percent of voters in the last two presidential elections.

Pate did not propose ending election-day voter registration and does not appear to have suggested a ban on satellite voting locations, though I agree with John Deeth that Republican lawmakers will pursue both of those policies, with an eye to suppressing Democratic votes. Whether Pate’s bill would shorten the 40-day window for casting early ballots is unclear. His news release mentioned the following points:

* Creating a deadline for proxies to return collected voter registration forms and absentee ballots to the county auditor’s office.
* Setting the first date to request absentee ballots at 120 days prior to an election.

I’m seeking clarification from the Secretary of State’s office.

Two points in Pate’s proposal are worth pursuing: “uniform, ongoing training for election staff and poll workers,” and electronic poll books for all counties. Several people charged with voting illegally Black Hawk County in 2012 were unaware that they were ineligible to vote. Ryan Foley reported last March for the Associated Press,

Defense attorney Aaron Hawbaker said each trial will hinge on whether defendants knowingly voted illegally as prosecutors must prove or thought they were eligible. […]

Elections officials allowed them to vote because their precincts, unlike others in the county, didn’t have electronic systems to check felon eligibility when they registered. Fifteen other felons were identified at county precincts before voting and weren’t prosecuted.

Electronic poll books would have stopped honest mistakes from leading to a series of felony convictions.

I’m skeptical Republican lawmakers will find the hundreds of thousands of dollars it would cost to make electronic poll books universal in Iowa, given the current revenue projections.

Rather, Pate and his GOP allies will use non-existent voter impersonation fraud to justify new burdens for more than 150,000 Iowans to exercise a fundamental constitutional right. Their standard operating procedure may well lead to a lawsuit, but I doubt federal or Iowa courts would strike down a voter ID law.

UPDATE: Democratic State Senator Jeff Danielson, the outgoing chair of the Iowa Senate State Government Committee, released the following statement:

“Less than two months after praising the integrity of elections in Iowa, Secretary of State Paul Pate has released a partisan proposal that will suppress voter turnout across Iowa. Voter ID and other changes outlined today will disenfranchise older Iowans, younger Iowans and people of color.

“Senate Democrats have worked with Republican legislators and county auditors over the years to increase voter participation and election integrity in our state. The proposals today from Secretary Pate turn back the clock by making election policy a partisan issue.

“As the first-in-the-nation caucus state, Iowa should have the best-in-the-nation election laws. Democrats believe that means Iowa’s elections must be the most accurate, secure and efficient in the country, without disenfranchising a single Iowan. Those values will guide our decisions to support or oppose proposed Republican changes to Iowa’s election laws.”

Pate succeeded in influencing some of the mainstream media coverage. Rod Boshart passed along the Republican spin in his write-up for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, headlined, “Pate proposes voter ID, other changes to boost election integrity,” with the following lede: “Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate on Thursday proposed a $1 million upgrade to the state’s election system to guard against fraud by using electronic poll books statewide and requiring voter ID.”

SECOND UPDATE: John Deeth, who works in the Johnson County elections office, noted that current software doesn’t allow signatures to be electronically verified at polling sites, as Pate has promised to require. Deeth also observed, “Political differences on voter ID aside, this is definitely going to slow down the line for everyone.” Remarkably, Pate claimed in the enclosed press release that his bill “will reduce waiting times at the polls.”

THIRD UPDATE: Deeth provided more detail on electronic poll books and signature verification in the comments below.

A number of Republicans have asked me, what’s so hard about getting a photo ID? One of many good reads on this subject is Sari Horwitz’s piece for the Washington Post from last May: “Getting a photo ID so you can vote is easy. Unless you’re poor, black, Latino or elderly.” The barriers are significant for people without disposable income or access to transportation.

Some Republicans have asked why I don’t accept Pate’s claim to be acting in the interest of “integrity.” Most states with voter ID laws–even Wisconsin–allow student IDs. There is no “integrity” benefit to excluding student IDs. The predictable consequence is creating new barriers for tens of thousands of eligible Iowa voters, who are part of a Democratic-leaning demographic.

A big test is coming for college Republican groups: will they speak out against creating new obstacles for their fellow students who want to exercise their constitutional right to vote? Or will they go along with the phony “integrity” bill, to curry favor with powerful GOP politicians?

For those who deny that voter impersonation fraud is a non-existent problem, be aware that Loyola Law School Professor Justin Levitt has been tracking voter fraud allegations for years and found just 31 credible examples of fraud that photo ID laws could fix in fourteen years of elections across the country, involving approximately a billion ballots cast.

FOURTH UPDATE: Strongly recommend Deeth’s “deep dig” into the real-world implications of voter ID legislation.

The student government presidents of Iowa’s three state universities released a joint statement over the weekend condemning Pate’s proposal:

Pate’s Expensive Voter ID Law Would Create Barriers for College Voters

As student body presidents at Iowa’s three regent universities, we are deeply concerned about Secretary of State Paul Pate’s anticipated “election integrity” proposal to the Iowa Legislature.

This past election cycle, we worked hand-in-hand with the Secretary of State’s office to engage our peers in the electoral process by registering thousands of students and encouraging them to turn out to vote. Under Secretary Pate’s leadership, college student voter turnout became a priority in the state in 2016. Unfortunately, his newest initiative, an unnecessary voter identification requirement, would reverse the progress that we made among college students this past election cycle significantly.

Secretary Pate’s proposal would require all voters in Iowa to show voter identification, such as an Iowa driver’s license, when they vote. Our student IDs, which are issued by the state’s public universities, would not be an accepted form of voter ID under the current proposal. When each student is already equipped with a form of credible identification, it is unnecessary and burdensome to require them to jump through additional bureaucratic hoops to practice their fundamental right to vote. We know firsthand how difficult it is to get students registered to vote already — with frequent address changes and being introduced to the electoral process for the first time — the last thing students need is another barrier to their participation.

Furthermore, the proposal claims that students may receive a free voter ID card in the mail if they do not have a driver’s license, but these free IDs are only available to existing active voters. The majority of students are first-time voters and therefore would not receive the free ID. This problem is exacerbated for out-of-state students who do not have an Iowa driver’s license. This group of students would be effectively disenfranchised in Iowa if they were not permitted to receive the free ID under the proposed law.

In addition to the unnecessary burden this proposal creates for students to vote, it is also expected to cost the state approximately $1 million to fund. With such a small number of documented cases of voter fraud in Iowa over the past several years, this would be an irresponsible use of state funds when the budget is already incredibly tight. Additionally, year after year, legislators and the Governor cite significant budget constraints for the declining support for public education in the state. It is extremely frustrating and disheartening to see that our tuition prices continue to rise as our elected officials consider spending our limited state funds on an expensive proposal to fix a virtually non-existent problem.

We hope that our state legislators will listen to our concerns and vote against any legislation that would misuse state funds and severely limit the ability for college students to exercise their right to vote.

Cole Staudt, Iowa State University Student Government President; Rachel Zuckerman, University of Iowa Student Government President; Hunter Flesch, University of Northern Iowa Student Government President

The Des Moines Register’s editorial board commented on January 8,

This is not some benign effort to protect the integrity of the voting process; it’s a calculated attempt to disenfranchise a segment of the population that is legally entitled to vote. It’s no coincidence that voter-ID laws are supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats, which is why it’s helpful to look to the courts for guidance on this issue. In July, a federal appeals court panel struck down North Carolina’s newly enacted voter-ID requirements, citing the state’s obvious intent to discourage minorities from voting. Also in July, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out the voter-ID law in Texas, and similar rulings have been handed down in Kansas, South Dakota, Ohio and Wisconsin. This is the road down which Pate wants Iowa to travel — at a cost to taxpayers of $1 million.

January 5 press release:

MEDIA RELEASE: Secretary of State Paul Pate unveils proposed Election Integrity legislation

DES MOINES – Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate announced his proposed legislation to ensure the integrity of Iowa’s elections during a news conference at the State Capitol on Thursday. The proposal includes instituting electronic poll books at every Iowa precinct, requiring voter verification at the polling place, including signature verification, and requiring an ID number for voting by absentee ballot. Secretary Pate’s bill also establishes post-election audits to ensure public confidence with the electoral process.

“As I have stated many times, protecting the integrity of our elections is my top priority and this legislation will help us do that,” Secretary Pate said. “I want to make it easy to vote, but hard to cheat. If you don’t have an ID, we will send you a new voter registration card to use at the polls. This bill streamlines the system to make checking in easier and quicker. It will reduce waiting times at the polls, ensure every eligible Iowan is able to cast a ballot, and ensures their ballot will count.”

Utilizing electronic poll books, voters will scan their state-issued ID or voter registration card upon checking in at their polling place.

Other items in the proposed legislation include:

* Creating a deadline for proxies to return collected voter registration forms and absentee ballots to the county auditor’s office.
* Setting the first date to request absentee ballots at 120 days prior to an election.

* Ensuring uniform, ongoing training for election staff and poll workers.
* Requiring that county auditors certify their compliance to all state and federal laws and report all suspected instances of election misconduct with the Secretary of State.

The general purpose of this proposal is to continue to ensure the fairness of the election system in Iowa, while increasing measures to enhance integrity.

“I am very proud of Iowa’s record of voter participation and I will continue to work to encourage and increase voter turnout,” Secretary Pate said. “We are one of the top states in the nation for voter registration and voter participation. This legislation will not have any negative impact on either of those. Instead, it will help instill confidence in our voting system and let every Iowan know that their vote counts.”

About the Author(s)


  • Translation

    When he says “If you don’t have an ID, we will send you a new voter registration card to use at the polls,” that means “kiss election-day registration goodbye.” A voter registration card is something that is sent to someone who has pre-registered.

  • Partisanship all around.

    It was a bad development when first Chet Culver and then Matt What’s His Name used the SoS office as a launching pad for higher office . This office should be a culmination of a career as it was for Michael Mauro.

    Now Pate has again politicized the place, making it into a hurdle for voters to jump. There is no fraud that IDs at the polls will prevent. There is only Republican ideology that must be fed. This is shameful governance.

  • Software

    To elaborate:

    Most counties with electronic pollbooks use the Precinct Atlas program which does include images of signatures. This program has some networking capabilities but is designed to be a stand-alone program. It works off a downloaded copy of the voter file that’s updated as late as possible before election day.

    The IVoters software that we use in the offices (and at some satellite sites) to do the bulk of our voter registration work does include imaging. It’s an entirely online program.

    So signature verification at the polls would require either 1) Ivoters at every precinct, meaning internet and I mean SECURE internet at every precinct, so that pollworkers could look at images of past signatures. Would also mean upgrades to Ivoters because it’s not designed for processing election day voters. Or 2) A new version of Precinct Atlas that incorporates imaging, either through, again, a live internet connection or through some kind of hoomungous download of image files – which even for small images like signatures takes up a lot of drive space.

    • In other words...

      We’re in a river of feces here. Do you believe that these (largely computer illiterate) legislators are going to guarantee a flawless, high tech solution to this non-issue? This would be laughable if it wasn’t a stake in the heart of our state’s bipartisan trust. I would be highly suspect of any “new code” added by republican-hired engineers. Sad and it gives me no joy to say it.
      After hearing Pate on WHO yesterday I’m more convinced that our primary challenge will be messaging going forward. I’ve never lived in such a one-sided media market.

  • License numbers

    “Pate is also calling for voters who cast absentee ballots to put their driver’s license number on the ballot, so election staff can search voter registration rolls and confirm the voters’ signature is legitimate.” I can SEARCH with as little as a couple legible initials and a birth year . It’s EASIER with an ID, sure, but all this really does is add more bureaucracy. You didn’t fill your form out right, you’re a problem ballot. It does NOT, though, look like they want to make people send in copies of IDs with absentees, because older GOP voters are less likely to have a copier-printer at home…

  • IMPORTANT correction

    Most counties with electronic pollbooks use the Precinct Atlas program which does NOT include images of signatures.

  • Truly a solution in search of a problem

    Secretary Pate received kudos for vouching for the integrity of Iowa’s voting process in response to Trump’s voter fraud claims during the fall election. But today’s action reveals his true colors. His proposal represents extreme partisanship, through and through.

    In my years working to protect consumers in the Attorney General’s Office, legislators demanded evidence supporting the need for our legislative proposals. They were right to do so. Today Mr. Pate offered nothing in support of his legislation other than national polling showing the supposed popularity of photo ID voter requirements. I am sure there are a lot of popular ideas the Legislature could consider in any given session, but that doesn’t mean they are good ideas or worthy of enactment. Rather, proposed legislation should have to pass a cost-benefit analysis. If costs exceed benefits, the legislation should probably fail.

    Since voter fraud is virtually non-existent in Iowa, any potential benefits of Pate’s proposal are minor. But the costs would be extreme. A whole new bureaucratic process would have to be put in place at taxpayer expense to handle the demand for non-driver license photo ID’s and checking them at voting sites. Having to analyze signatures on absentee ballots would impose a further unnecessary expense. If Pate’s bill passes, taxpayers will be on the hook. But the costs of this proposal can’t just be measured in dollars. As has happened in other states who enacted voter photo ID laws, many Iowa voters will effectively lose their most fundamental right as Americans – the right to vote. Big cost and lost rights versus a virtually nonexistent benefit. It seems Mr. Pate has flunked not only his civics class, but basic math!

    We have problems that our Legislature needs to address. Voter fraud is not a problem in Iowa. This bill deserves a quick trip to the recycling bin!

  • What a total joke.

    The ONLY voter fraud in Iowa last year was by some idiot Trump voters.
    If this kind of crap passes, we need to work on assisting those who need ID get them.
    So will students be required to get Iowa Driver’s Licenses to vote?
    Yeah, like that’s going to happen.

  • It will be interesting

    To see if today’s college students are up for defending their access to the ballot box while at school. In thinking about the process, It would seem to me that the president of the college would see it as their responsibility to smooth the way between the college and county if not state election officials to create the smoothest path for the greatest number of students in their charge. God knows, the colleges themselves probably have enough data on hand about each student to flag potential problems before they would even reach the state election computers. If you want to demonstrate to young people that the American system is to be honored then colleges, who have a fair number of voters in their community, should have a secure strategy for merging their pre-existing ID systems with whatever the state needs to authorize a potential voter.

    My guess is that students who pay $multi-millions to Iowa colleges for an education will not be stupid enough to let themselves be disenfranchised by Mr. Pate or anyone foolish enough to attempt to turn Iowa into South Carolina.
    …now, if beer bongs and party culture spell apathy amongst Iowa college-age youth, then who knows.