Paul Pate Plays the Press on Voter ID Push

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Nearly two weeks after Secretary of State Paul Pate announced his proposal on Jan. 5 to finally bring voter ID to Iowa with a GOP-controlled Legislature, he still hasn’t released a draft of the legislation. But that hasn’t stopped him from complaining on social media about “distortions” and “misconceptions” of his proposal and meeting in newspaper boardrooms to sell journalists — with surprising ease — on his phony campaign for “election integrity.”

As Pate tells it, his proposal is not like those pushed by Republicans elsewhere. It would require voters to present identification at the polls but not voter photo IDs, which have been used in other states to disenfranchise the poor, elderly, and minorities who typically support Democrats. Registered voters without a driver’s license or another form of ID will be sent free voter ID cards, Pate says, and his proposal is more about upholding the integrity of state elections than preventing fraud because it will include a measure requiring county auditors to update their equipment.

Critics were quick to pounce on Pate’s pitch. Tweeting at Pate and Gov. Terry Branstad, who also supports voter suppression efforts, Matt McCoy, a Democratic state senator from Des Moines, called the proposal a modern-day poll tax.

“FACT,” Pate responded in all-caps, a la Donald Trump. “The Voter IDs are 100% FREE for every registered voter who needs one. They’ll receive automatically.”

As the student government leaders of Iowa’s three state universities pointed out in an open letter to Pate, there is little chance his free voter IDs would reach all eligible voters. “We know firsthand how difficult it is to get students registered to vote already — with frequent address changes and being introduced to the electoral process for the first time,” the letter said. “[T]he last thing students need is another barrier to their participation.” (Under Pate’s proposal, students would not be allowed to use their university IDs to vote but would receive a separate ID in the mail once they registered.)

“Your info is incorrect,” replied Pate, who hasn’t released a draft of his proposal that would presumably clear up such alleged misinformation.

Instead of releasing a draft, Pate went on a public relations tour of Iowa newsrooms to push back against what he’s said are unfair interpretations of his nonexistent bill. First, Pate spun the Des Moines Register with ease. During his meeting there, the paper’s “engagement editor,” Brian Smith, tweeted, “Getting voter ID card won’t require any effort from voters. @IowaSOS will match new registrants against @IowaDOT database,” as if it had been established as fact that the proposal would disenfranchise no one.

Pate played the Register’s political columnist Kathie Obradovich even better, getting her to write a credulous article titled “Voter ID plan seems fair but needs caution.” With only minor reservations, she endorsed Pate’s vision, writing, “This is not quite the same as the ‘voter photo ID’ law that civil rights advocates warn against and that I have also opposed.” Pate’s proposal, she argued, wouldn’t disenfranchise voters because “[t]he state, using Iowa DOT records, would automatically mail a free state voter ID card to every registered voter who does not already have a driver’s license or state-issued ID. No photo, no cost, no travel and no bureaucratic red tape for the voter at all.”

As Pate told Obradovich, “So many people are treating this as a fraud bill. That isn’t the intention. This is really about integrity.” Then he tweeted a quote from former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall about the importance of preventing voter fraud:

“However ham-handed the rollout, however, Pate has developed a proposal that seems reasonable,” Obradovich wrote. “If his legislation were approved by the Legislature and implemented as described, it appears it could expedite Iowans’ time at the polls without burdening any eligible voter.” Pate tweeted an image featuring the quote (omitting the part about the ham-handed rollout). Although the article it came from was written by a columnist and not the paper’s editorial board (which opposes his proposal), he attributed the quote to the Register itself anyway — a classic dirty trick of campaign advertising. “A fair look at a very fair proposal,” he added in another tweet, cementing Obradovich’s role as his de facto spokesperson.

After his meeting with the Register, Pate made a stop at the Cedar Rapids Gazette. This led to a more skeptical article by reporter Vanessa Miller, who noted that his proposal “calls for instituting electronic poll books in Iowa’s 99 counties, changing absentee ballot deadlines and establishing postelection audits” but also quoted Pate admitting the “only thing that has to happen this session to make this a meaningful piece of legislation is the ID card component,” exposing his ostensible interest in “election integrity” as a ploy.

Before visiting the Gazette, however, Pate tweeted a link to an article with the servile headline “Voter ID, technology upgrades will increase confidence” by another of its reporters, James Lynch, adding, “A fair, balanced look at my #ElectionIntegrity proposal, from a reporter who asked questions & reported facts.”

Although reporting facts about a bill that doesn’t exist is impossible, that didn’t stop Lynch from writing that Pate hoped the Legislature “shares his sense of urgency to upgrade and protect the election system” to “increase voter confidence in voter registration and absentee voting.” The proposal, Lynch wrote without any evidence, referring to the part of it Pate later said he’d be willing to scrap, “will help prevent human error that is bound to occur with 1.58 million people voting in a presidential election.”

“We ran a darned clean election here, but you don’t rest on your laurels,” Pate told Lynch. “You have to keep protecting what’s important to you. It’s no different than if I was commanding a military operation. You don’t want to lose a single soldier. We don’t want to lose a single vote.” The specter of voter fraud, Pate added, “was unusually high” in the last election cycle compared to those during his previous tenure as secretary of state in the ‘90s, when the Iowa State Ethics Commission reprimanded him for using his office to run for governor.

Ludicrously, Pate told Lynch that his proposal was especially important now, after his office was “bombarded with questions about the Russian thing and every kind of hacking” — even though he added “they didn’t hack a single election system anywhere” while leaving out the fact that his own party’s presidential candidate openly encouraged Russian hackers during his campaign and later spread lies about widespread voter fraud that led one of his own supporters in Iowa to be charged with felony election misconduct.

Pate’s reported devotion to clean elections, as he has demonstrated numerous times before his admission to Miller, is plainly horseshit. While he claims it’s “[v]ital that every Iowan knows their vote counts,” Pate went on a similar PR tour last year before winning a state Supreme Court case that maintained Iowa’s role as one of the only states that permanently disenfranchises anyone convicted of any felony (unless they pay off onerous legal fees and make a successful appeal directly to the governor — a process Branstad has called “efficient and convenient”). During the tour, Pate falsely suggested that Iowa liberals wanted to ease felon voting restrictions so that child molesters and killers behind bars could sway local elections.

Perhaps Pate hasn’t released a draft of his latest voter suppression proposal yet because it’s still being written after the hasty PR rollout. When he first announced the plan, it came with a $1 million price tag. But that’s supposedly before his office bothered to cross-check a state DOT drivers database with one of Iowa voters to see how many don’t have licenses — now the estimated cost is just $250,000. (Or, if you choose to believe the Register instead, $300,000.)

Regardless of the cost, Pate’s predecessor and fellow Republican Matt Schultz has already shown, by misusing $250,000 in federal funds meant to increase voters’ access to the polls to conduct a harebrained dragnet to suss out fraud, that the problem is virtually nonexistent in Iowa (and everywhere else in the country). Schultz later demonstrated how databases can be unreliable when he used federal immigration records in an effort to purge Iowa’s voter rolls before the 2014 midterm elections that was blocked in court.

And regardless of Pate’s claims about election integrity, the county auditors who would be tasked with implementing the new law don’t think it’s necessary and say it would be overly burdensome. The provisional ballots Pate says voters who forget their IDs at home could use to ensure their votes are counted would create additional unnecessary costs for counties for a problem that exists only hypothetically.

But the only way to fairly judge Pate’s proposal is for him to release a draft of it.

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.