DES MOINES — An Iowa senator asked a U.S. Senate committee Wednesday to confirm appointees to a federal election commission so a decision can be made about whether Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz is properly using money for voter-fraud investigations.
Schultz, a Republican, last year agreed to pay the Iowa Division of Criminal investigation up to $280,000 over two years to investigate voter fraud.
Sen. Tom Courtney, a Democrat, questions whether the use of the money sent to Iowa as part of the Help America Vote Act funding was legal. Courtney said the funds are intended for education about voting procedures, voter rights and technology, and not for “a voter fraud goose chase.”
Courtney said he sent a letter Wednesday to U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat and Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, who chair the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. The committee oversees nominations for a variety of federal posts and has held a hearing as recently as last month on nominees for the Election Assistance Commission, which administers Help America Vote Act money.
“Without action by your committee, Iowa Secretary of State Schultz is free to thumb his nose at taxpayers and the currently toothless federal watchdog — the U.S. Election Assistance Committee — because he knows there are virtually no limitations on how he spends the funds,” Courtney wrote in the letter.
Schultz continued to assert his use of the money for investigations is appropriate.
“These funds have been used properly according to the law, and no federal or state agency has ever stated otherwise,” Charlie Smithson, legal counsel to Schultz, said in a statement Wednesday.
Courtney asked the state auditor in October to review Schultz’s use of the money. The report released Dec. 19 by Chief Deputy Auditor Warren Jenkins concluded that the federal program “does not specifically address whether the investigation of complaints and potential criminal activity is an allowable expenditure ... “
Jenkins said, however, that Schultz should be prepared to repay the money if the Election Assistance Commission determines the funds weren’t properly used.
The commission under the Help America Vote Act is supposed to have four members nominated by the president and approved by Congress. The last commissioners quit in December 2011, and Congress has not approved any nominees.
Without commissioners, the agency cannot advise states on the use of the vote act’s funds and has told Courtney it could not look further into Schultz’s use of the federal money until the commission has at least three voting members.
Two nominees, Thomas Hicks and Myrna Perez, appeared before the committee for a hearing last year, but a vote was never held. They appeared again for a confirmation hearing on Dec. 11, but no action has yet been taken. Republicans in the House and Senate have said the commission should be dissolved.
“This commission is redundant and ought to be eliminated,” Roberts said in a statement before the hearing. “If the majority sees the light, maybe we can finally get rid of this commission and save the taxpayers some money.”
Schumer said the commission’s role in certifying voting machines and administering the vote act’s money is still important and it is severely hampered without at least three commissioners to conduct business.
“At a time when long lines continue to plague our country and impede voting, we must have a functioning EAC. Confirming these nominees is the first step,” he said in opening remarks for the hearing.
The issue illustrates a philosophical rift between Democrats and Republicans over voting issues. Republicans in Iowa and elsewhere have championed voter ID laws and other measures that they say are meant to combat voter fraud. Democrats contend that in-person voter fraud is very rare, and that such laws are really meant to disenfranchise voting blocs that traditionally support their party, including students, the poor and the elderly.
After 18 months of investigations, Schultz has spent about $150,000. The investigations have led to charges against 16 people in Iowa, where about 2.1 million people are registered to vote. Many of those charged said they mistakenly registered or believed they were able to vote.