IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — States are free to use federal grant money intended to improve how elections are run in order to pay for criminal investigations of potential voter fraud, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission has ruled.
The commission's opinion is a relief to election officials in Iowa, who will not have to pay back $240,000 in federal money that was used for a voter fraud investigation that ended last year. But critics of Iowa's investigation said they were surprised that the commission found that Help America Vote Act funding could be used for such a purpose, and worried that other states could follow suit.
"It seems like a real stretch," said Tom Courtney, an Iowa Democratic state senator who asked the commission's inspector general to investigate the spending nearly three years ago. "But now with this ruling in their pocket, Iowa and other states might say, 'all right.' "
Months before the 2012 presidential election, then-Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz reached an agreement to pay the salary and expenses of a full-time Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agent for two years to look into "instances of potential criminal activity" related to voting and elections. The investigation led to charges against 10 non-U.S. citizens and 16 ex-felons accused of casting ballots despite not having voting rights.
Schultz, a Republican, said he was pleased by the commission's unanimous decision finding the spending was "entirely appropriate." ''This was always about improving the administration of elections," he said.
Democrats and civil rights groups called the investigation an attempt to intimidate voters and a waste of money. Courtney argued that it was an inappropriate use of funding from the Help America Vote Act, which was passed in 2002 to improve elections and has provided more than $3 billion to states to pay for items such as voting equipment and poll worker training.
The commission, which oversees HAVA spending, couldn't decide whether the spending was allowed because it had no members for years. The commission started operating again in January after three appointees — two Republicans, one Democrat — won U.S. Senate confirmation.
In a 3-0 decision, the commissioners agreed in an Aug. 13 advisory that Iowa's use of the money was "allowable, allocable and reasonable." The Help America Vote Act requires states to ensure that voter registration records are accurate and leaves to them "the specific choices on the methods of complying," the advisory said.
Iowa certified in 2010 that it had met key HAVA requirements, such as maintaining a statewide voter registration database, and therefore could use the money "to carry out other activities to improve the administration of elections for federal office." The investigator's services were new and furthered the law's goal of properly administering voter registration records, the advisory said.
Commission spokesman Bryan Whitener said he wasn't aware of other states using HAVA funding for similar investigations.
Critics reacted swiftly after learning of the opinion Monday.
"The thought that former Secretary of State Schultz' model of voter intimidation can now be exported to other states ahead of the 2016 General Election is truly troublesome for our national democracy," ACLU of Iowa legal director Rita Bettis said.
In a May 2014 report summarizing the investigation, Schultz's office said it identified 117 illegal votes that were cast. The initiative "clearly improved the administration of elections" by removing illegal voters from registration lists and uncovering inaccuracies in the state's file of ineligible felon voters, the report said. Prosecutors declined to bring charges in a majority of the cases.
Iowa's state auditor had warned Schultz's office in December 2013 to develop a plan to repay the money if the commission found it unauthorized and requested repayment. Schultz's successor, Republican Paul Pate, reacted positively to the opinion Monday.
"I applaud the decision of the EAC to put this question regarding the use of HAVA funds behind us," he said.
This story has been corrected to show that state Sen. Tom Courtney argued that using the federal grant money to fund a voter fraud investigation was inappropriate, not that it was appropriate.