After Voter ID Court Setback, Paul Pate and the Iowa GOP — Once Again — Play the Victim

The secretary of state this week slammed the "activist judge" who ordered a temporary halt to several key components of his disenfranchising voter ID law

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On Tuesday, Polk County District Court Judge Karen Romano granted a temporary injunction against several key components of a voter ID law Paul Pate championed last year. True to form, the Republican secretary of state quickly cried foul, smearing Romano as an “activist judge” and claiming that his supposed efforts to ensure the integrity of Iowa elections are under attack by “out-of-state dark money and Washington DC lawyers.”

The injunction, which was made public Wednesday, involves a lawsuit filed against the voter ID law, which was drafted by Pate and passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature in 2017. In May, the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa, a civil rights group, and Iowa State University student Taylor Blair, vice president of the College and Young Democrats of Iowa, filed suit, arguing that the law would make it harder for Latinos and residents without driver’s licenses to vote.

Romano agreed. “Because the State has not presented any evidence that Iowa elections will be subject to fraud if the provisions in [House File] 516 do not go into effect, the harm Plaintiffs will suffer substantially outweighs any harm the State may suffer.” She did not block the law, which is supposed to become official in January 2019, in its entirety, but halted a provision narrowing the state’s early voting window from 40 to 29 days and three others establishing signature-matching and voter verification number requirements for absentee ballots.

In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Pate said he was “disappointed” by the court’s decision and vowed to appeal it to the Iowa Supreme Court, where in 2016 he successfully defended the state’s harsh felon voter disenfranchisement law in another lawsuit.

“Out-of-state dark money and Washington DC lawyers have come into Iowa to try to overturn our election laws,” Pate added in the statement, presumably referring to Let America Vote, a 527 group with an affiliated super-PAC founded by former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, a Democrat, that’s involved in a multi-state effort to overturn voter suppression laws; and the Priorities USA Foundation, a Democratic super-PAC that financed the current lawsuit. (If he was, his statement was inaccurate: Dark money groups are 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofits, which can keep their donors secret thanks to the US Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizen United ruling. Super-PACs and 527 groups, however, are required by law to disclose their donors to the IRS and Federal Election Commission, respectively.)

“The plaintiffs have not shown a single Iowan has been disenfranchised by this bill,” Pate further claimed. That would be difficult to prove, as the law hasn’t yet gone into effect. But the statement is at odds with reports of confusion at the polls during a “soft roll-out” of the law for the June 5 primaries and an allegation made by Blair in his lawsuit that he never received a voter ID card — which Pate has promised all registered voters without state-issued IDs such as driver’s licenses — because the secretary of state’s office accidentally matched his registration to another person.

In granting the injunction, Romano was sympathetic to the plaintiffs here, too. She ordered Pate not to include the words “cannot be issued until ID number is provided” on absentee ballots or distribute “Voter Ready” campaign materials saying that voters “will be asked to show a form of valid identification” without also clarifying that ID is not required in any election this year. “The State offers no justification for promulgating materials that seemingly only aim to promote an inaccurate depiction of current Iowa law,” she added, chiding Pate for his misleading “election integrity” efforts.

On Wednesday, Pate doubled down in a campaign fundraising email, promising again to appeal his case to the state Supreme Court and slamming Romano as “an activist judge” who granted the injunction “in support of the [lawsuit’s] bogus assertions, despite the claimants’ inability to demonstrate a single case of voter disenfranchisement.” (A similar argument could be made against the voter ID law, whose ostensible purpose is to prevent voter fraud: Pate’s predecessor, Republican Matt Schultz, blew over $250,000 in federal funds meant to help improve access to the polls on a crusade to stamp out voter fraud that found virtually no evidence of it.)

Pate also attacked his 2018 Democratic challenger, Deidre DeJear, who celebrated the court’s decision as “a step forward in the fight to defend our most fundamental right.” In his email, Pate warned that efforts “to preserve the integrity of our elections” would likely be for naught if DeJear defeats him in November. “If I lose, Iowa’s advocate for fair and honest elections will be replaced by a liberal activist who will work to undo all of the progress we have made,” he said. “We can’t afford to let that happen.”

Soon after, the Republican Party of Iowa followed up with a fundraising pitch of its own, claiming its “conservative agenda” was “under attack” again, this time from a “liberal judge in Polk County.” “Liberals have been grasping at straws attempting to stop our progress in Iowa, and now they’ve found a way to allow out of state special interests to dictate our laws,” the email said.

Pate’s misleading statements and over-the-top, partisan smears in response to criticism are nothing new. In April, after a scoop from Associated Press reporter Ryan Foley revealing that the secretary of state failed to disclose a new storage rental business he established in Cedar Rapids called PRG Group LLC in his annual ethics filing, Pate reacted in a fundraising email by accusing Foley, who is widely considered to be one of the best investigative journalists in Iowa, of producing “fake news” and “deceitful propaganda” to help the Democratic Party. He also falsely claimed that Foley’s report had “been definitively debunked,” simply because the Iowa Campaign Ethics and Disclosure Board said it wouldn’t penalize him for the omission, and that he had been “slandered” by it (the proper term would have been libeled). Two weeks later, on the day of a filing deadline, Pate amended his ethics disclosure to include his new business.

Last September, in yet another fundraising pitch, Pate claimed that as soon as his voter ID bill became law, “you could hear the [sic] Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and George Soros howl.” In a fearmongering appeal for campaign cash, he added, “You don’t want some felon who is ineligible to vote or a radical zealot who thinks he can get away with voting multiple times to cancel out your vote.” Thanks to former Gov. Terry Branstad, whose 2011 executive order Pate defended before the state Supreme Court in 2016, Iowa has one of the nation’s strictest felon disenfranchisement laws, which for years has disproportionately impacted African American voters. (DeJear, Pate’s opponent, is the first African American in Iowa’s history to be nominated by a major party for statewide office.)

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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.