IOWA CITY | One vote can determine an election, Republicans intent on fighting voter fraud say consistently.

That thought drives a investigation ordered by Secretary of State Matt Schultz and carried out by the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation to find fraudulent voting in Iowa.

“We have evidence that people have gone to the polls and voted when they weren’t supposed to,” Schultz said. “There are several Senate seats that were decided by 20 votes or less.”

The actual number from the 2012 and 2010 elections is two, an IowaWatch review of the state's voting results shows.

In 2012, Senate District 28 was decided by just 17 votes, with Republican Michael Breitbach edging out Democrat John Beard. In 2010, the race between Republican Mark Chelgren and Democrat Keith Kreiman in State Senate District 47 swung Chelgren’s way by only 10 votes. Republican Renee Schulte also beat Democrat Art Staed by 13 votes the former House 37 election in 2008, bringing to three the number of Iowa legislative seats won by fewer than 20 votes since 2000, the IowaWatch review shows.

Yet, that is enough to spring Schultz and other Republican leaders to action in pursuit of fraudulent voters and Democrats in the Statehouse to accuse Schultz and his party colleagues of conducting a witch hunt – an expensive one at that.

The investigation, in the second of a two-year probe, has cost the state about $175,000 so far in reimbursements his office has given to the DCI, the Secretary of State's Office reported late last week. The office had planned on spending $280,000 – $140,000 in each of the two years – but spent only $100,000 in the first year, Schultz spokesman Chance McElhaney said.

Spending $140,000 this year would bring the total cost to $240,000. On Feb. 4 Schultz requested an additional $140,000 in funding from the Legislature, which Democrats are unlikely to support.

The DCI’s investigation has been ongoing since July 2012 and has so far has resulted in criminal charges in 26 cases. Five of those have been dismissed and five have resulted in guilty pleas. The other cases were pending.

“I think any time you have a case of fraud it makes an impact on an election,” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak. “We want people to have faith in our elections process.”

Iowa’s Republican governor agreed.

“You can have elections decided by one vote, and so I think every vote is important and precious,” Gov. Terry Branstad said. “As somebody that’s been on the ballot and knows that every vote counts, I take it very seriously.”

IowaWatch’s review of vote totals since 2000 shows the number of close elections for state senator and representative – defined as races decided by fewer than 100 votes – has grown.

No state races in 2000 and 2002 came within 100 votes, the review of elections shows. From 2002 to 2006, only three races came closer than 100 votes – two for state representatives and one for senator – and in all three cases the victor won by more than 50 votes.

However, 14 races from 2008 through 2012 were decided by fewer than 100 votes and 10 of those fell within a difference of only 50 votes. None of these election years had fewer than three races within 100 votes, which shows the increasing competitiveness of elections to Iowa’s state legislature.

QUESTIONS ABOUT COST, FUNDING SOURCES

Democrats have leveled criticism against Schultz’s investigation for what they say is its high cost, especially in light of the relatively few number of cases that have been charged with fraud.

Schultz countered, saying the amount of money being spent is relatively small: 6.5 cents per registered Iowa voter. “I think the people of Iowa are willing for their government to spend 6.5 cents a registered voter to make sure we have some integrity,” Schultz said in an IowaWatch interview.

He added that the number would be less than 6.5 cents if he did not spend the full amount.

Many cases in which vote fraud is charged involve felons voting when their voting rights have not been restored. Restoration of voting rights became automatic upon release in 2005 following an executive order by former Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, but in 2011 an application process was reinstated under Branstad.

Lawyers of the guilty voters have claimed their clients did not realize their voting rights hadn’t been restored when they voted.

“It really is hard to prove intent,” Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, said. He added many of the cases of fraud uncovered by the investigation simply may have been honest mistakes.

Schultz said the investigation is not concerned with intent, but with maintaining the integrity of Iowa’s elections. “Their lawyers can say what they want, but at the end of the day they pled guilty,” Schultz said.

VALID BALLOTS DISCOUNTED

The investigation has also brought to light concerns that legitimate ballots unfairly were dismissed in the 2012 general election.

On Jan. 28 Cerro Gordo County Auditor Kenneth Kline sent Schultz a letter explaining that three of eight ballots matched with the state’s list of felons were thrown out improperly after being challenged and subsequently rejected in his county.

The voters in question were listed incorrectly on the registry of felons: two of them had their voting rights restored under Vilsack and the other, while charged with a felony, was not convicted.

Kline suggested the need to analyze “how the list of felons is compiled and maintained, and at what point that process failed for each of the three voters whose names were incorrectly included.” He also recommended additional investigation by the DCI, this time to protect voters whose ballots have been unfairly invalidated by the state.

McElhaney said this instance demonstrates the importance of the DCI investigation as both a tool to root out ineligible voters and protect eligible voters.

Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, held a hearing on Feb. 4 to investigate why the ballots were thrown out. More hearings will follow.

Democrats have criticized the pursuit of voter fraud as a solution looking for a problem and said that the amount of fraud being committed in Iowa is not enough to have a meaningful effect on elections.

“He (Schultz) decided there’s voter fraud going on in Iowa and I’ve never believed that,” Sen. Tom Courtney, D-Burlington, said. “I believe he’s using it just as a political tool.”

Schultz was elected as Secretary of State in 2010 on a platform that supported a voter ID law and a crackdown on fraud in the state. But recently he announced his intention to run for Iowa’s third congressional district seat, which will be left open following the announced retirement of U.S. Rep. Tom Latham, a Republican.

QUESTIONS ABOUT FUNDING SOURCE

For some Democrats the issue is not only cost, but the source of the funding. Shultz is paying for the investigation with money from the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), a 2002 law passed to help states run smooth elections and encourage voting.

Courtney has challenged the use of the HAVA funds, saying they aren’t intended to investigate illegal voting. Deputy State Auditor Warren Jenkins has recommended that Schultz prepare a repayment plan in case the funds were used improperly.

The federal body in charge of regulating the use of HAVA funds, the U.S. Election Assistance Committee, has not made a decision on the matter. “My attorneys and my staff, who are professionals in this area, recommended that I can use these funds to do that,” Schultz said.

STALLED ID LAW

A voter ID law that would require photo identification for voters at the polling place – Schultz’s initial proposal to eradicate fraud – has no chance of passing into law this year, legislators say. But Republicans have not withdrawn support for such a law.

“Any time we’re talking about our right to vote I want to make sure it truly is protected,” Rep. Chuck Soderberg, R-Le Mars, said.

The proposed bill – which came up two votes short in the Iowa Senate last year with senators voting along party lines – would accept any federal, state, or local government issued ID, or any high school or college photo ID. It includes a provision allowing a voter with a valid photo ID to attest for a voter without one, if both sign an affidavit. Schultz said anyone without an eligible photo ID could obtain one and the state would waive the fee.

Despite opposition, Schultz said he at least has changed the tone of the debate during the course of his time in office.

“Before this happened, everybody said there’s no such thing as voter fraud,” he said.

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