DES MOINES, Iowa — The loud cry for voter identification and voter fraud investigations is fading to a whimper as Iowa's top election official prepares to leave and those running to replace him downplay the politically charged issues.
Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz decided not to seek for another term, instead making a failed bid for the 3rd congressional district Republican nomination. Schultz was elected in 2010 after a campaign largely focused on promoting voter ID and fighting what he argued was problematic voter fraud.
Once in office Schultz unsuccessfully lobbied lawmakers for a voter ID law, spent about $250,000 in a two-year investigation of election fraud and tried to pass a voter purge rule for those lacking citizenship proof, which led to an ongoing lawsuit.
He lost the court case filed by civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa when a judge ruled in March that Schultz didn't have the authority to create a rule that would cancel a voter's registration based on citizenship questions. He had tried to create a rule in 2012 that would have removed voters from registration rolls if their citizenship couldn't be confirmed by comparing state records with federal immigration records. Schultz has appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.
Schultz did not respond to a request for an interview.
Brad Anderson, the Democrat running for the office, has criticized Schultz and promised a different approach.
"I would end immediately these wasteful, expensive criminal investigations that have yielded few if any results," Anderson said. "What I believe we need to do is create a system that catches any election misconduct whether intentional or not before it happens."
Anderson, who was President Barack Obama's campaign director for Iowa in 2012, opposes voter ID. He said under current law any poll worker can ask any voter at any time for identification if the voter is unknown to the worker. He said the system has proven over decades to effectively maintain the integrity of Iowa elections.
Anderson wants all 99 counties in Iowa to use electronic poll books — computerized programs that allow poll workers to look up a voter's registration, eligibility to vote, address, voting precinct location and other information.
Currently 56 counties use a system designed by Cerro Gordo County Auditor Ken Kline called Precinct Atlas, which charges a fee of $1,500 per county plus 2 cents per registered voter. Twelve counties use a system created by Schultz's office called Iowa Express Voter, which is provided free of charge. The remaining counties use paper poll books to check in voters.
"I think it's unnecessary to have two competing electronic poll books," Anderson said.
Republican candidate Paul Pate, who was secretary of state from 1995 to 1999, also supports the idea.
"I think it has a lot of merit," he said. "We've always dealt with this, arguing over whose system we are going to use. The point is the technology is there and if the technology is there, we as grown adults can sit down and work it out."
He said the voter ID issue can be resolved by using a computerized system that shows a voter's records, including a picture and other details "instead of an ugly cumbersome paper printout that the polling places have."
"We have a lot of smart people in this state and we're very capable of working out a method in which we can verify IDs and do it in such a fashion where we are not alienating or disenfranchising people," he said. "That's my goal. There is no quick easy answer but if you sit down with our county auditors we'll get it done."
He applauds Schultz for attempting to clean up voter registration records and fighting fraud.
"I give Matt the credit for trying to clean up a problem but it turned into a political football," Pate said.
Apart from the candidates, some political action groups appear intent on pushing their agendas.
Republican-supported SOS for SoS plans to spend up to $10 million this year to help GOP secretary of state candidates in at least eight states, including Iowa. The group pushes for candidates supporting voter ID, citizenship verification methods, and fighting voter fraud.
On the other side of the political spectrum is iVote, a group founded by Jeremy Bird, the former national field director for Obama. The website says it's backing Democrats running in Iowa, Colorado, and Ohio.
The battles for who occupies the secretary of state offices intensified after the 2010 election in which Republicans took control or increased their majorities in dozens of statehouses. Since then voter ID laws have been passed in 11 states in some form and now exists in 31 states.
Republicans control 28 state elections offices and Democrats 22.