Basu: Purge appears to be effort to suppress Latino voters

September 14, 2012 | The Des Moines Register |

Iowa’s Democratic attorney general and Republican secretary of state made a show of solidarity last month in announcing they were fighting a lawsuit that challenges the emergency powers the secretary of state has given himself to purge registered voters he isn’t convinced are U.S. citizens.

“We’re working together here to make sure that people who are not eligible to vote don’t vote,” said Attorney General Tom Miller.

The unusual accord at a time when Democrats and Republicans elsewhere are at loggerheads over challenges to minority voting rights helped deflect concerns that some sinister vote-suppression effort was going on. But on a closer look, Miller’s endorsement might just be a function of his job description, to defend the state against challenges. There actually might be a sinister vote-suppression effort going on.

The emergency rules Schultz approved quietly and unilaterally allow him to challenge people’s eligibility to vote if one of two government lists flag them as noncitizens. But as Schultz was warned by a federal official in charge of one list, there are good reasons the lists can be wrong.

One of the lists is of licensed Iowa drivers, and it shows who wasn’t a citizen when he or she got licensed. Checking those names against registered voters, Schultz claims 3,582 people marked as noncitizens are registered to vote in Iowa.

But a driver’s license is good for five years. What Schultz didn’t say, and maybe didn’t know, is that in the five years ending last Sept. 30, 11,492 Iowans became U.S. citizens.

He’s also negotiating with the federal government for access to the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements list, which is intended for government agencies to determine if immigrants are eligible for benefits, such as food stamps. Officials there have written to Schultz saying that using it to verify citizenship has significant limitations since the office doesn’t have access to birth certificates — only naturalization information.

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Beginning with a presumption of guilt is not what the Constitution intended. Sadly, this has the appearance of a fishing expedition designed to keep Latino immigrants — who tend to vote Democratic — from voting. Iowa is a swing state, after all.

A Common Cause report, “Bullies at the Ballot Box,” looks at vote-suppression efforts in 10 other states where elections could be close. In Colorado this week the Republican secretary of state decided not to pursue a voter purge after almost 90 percent of the suspected noncitizens he identified turned out to be legal voters. Florida’s Republican governor launched a similar effort to investigate 180,000 suspicious voter names, resulting in 2,600 being removed from voter rolls. All but 207 of those were eligible voters.