Sessions Announces Feds Will Monitor Election in Immigrant-Heavy Part of Steve King’s District [Updated]

Steve King with Attorney General Jeff Sessions in November 2017. Photo: @SteveKingIA/Twitter

Update, 11/7: Although voting rights advocates continued to raise questions about the Justice Department’s announcement, it doesn’t appear that there were any irregularities at the polls Tuesday in Buena Vista County as a result of the visit from federal monitors. County Auditor Sue Lloyd and Mark Stringer, director of the ACLU of Iowa, both told the Sioux City Journal they supported the feds’ help in ensuring the right to vote. Lloyd said the visit stemmed from two years of conversations with federal officials about a county requirement to print ballots in both English and Spanish. A reporter based in Storm Lake also told the Informer Tuesday evening that the visit was over an audit of bilingual ballots initiated by the Obama administration.

The Justice Department press release mentioned none of this, instead suggesting it would use “every lawful tool that we have, both civil and criminal,” to go after voter fraud, which there has been no evidence of in the county.

Original post: The US Department of Justice announced Monday in a press release that its civil rights division will be dispatched to 35 jurisdictions in 19 states on Election Day to “monitor compliance with the federal voting rights laws.” Those jurisdictions include northwest Iowa’s Buena Vista County in the 4th Congressional District, where Steve King faces an unusually close re-election battle against Democratic newcomer J.D. Scholten because of the congressman’s promotion of white nationalism and Europe’s anti-migrant far right.

The press release does not explain why the county made the list, but its inclusion raises troubling questions. Non-Hispanic whites make up 59.5 percent of Buena Vista County’s total population, the smallest percentage in the state. The county is home to Storm Lake, King’s birthplace, which had scant diversity when he was young but underwent a demographic transformation in the 1980s when a wave of Asian and Latino immigrants arrived looking for work at the town’s meatpacking plants. (One of the plants is operated by Tyson Foods, which was not among the corporate donors to recently say they would no longer contribute to King.) The transformation, as the Informer has previously reported, had a major influence on King’s formative political years.

On the campaign trail Monday, King accused Democrats of attempting to “pile on illegals” to impact the Census Bureau’s population counts with the end goal of redistricting more favorable to their electoral prospects. Meanwhile, President Trump — who falsely alleged that “millions of people” cast illegal votes in the 2016 election — warned that he has ordered law enforcement officials to monitor voter fraud and pursue the “maximum criminal penalties” against anyone who votes illegally. There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Buena Vista County, nor anywhere else in Iowa.

“Voting rights are constitutional rights, and they’re part of what it means to be an American,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement in the Justice Department press release.

“This year we are using every lawful tool that we have, both civil and criminal, to protect the rights of millions of Americans to cast their vote unimpeded at one of more than 170,000 precincts across America,” Sessions added. “Citizens of America control this country through their selection of their governmental officials at the ballot box. Likewise, fraud in the voting process will not be tolerated. Fraud also corrupts the integrity of the ballot.”

Civil rights attorneys and other election watchdogs questioned Sessions’ motives, saying the late announcement of new poll watchers was likely an effort to intimidate minority voters and push the Trump administration’s bogus narrative that voter fraud is a serious threat.

There’s good reason to question Sessions beyond just his role in the Trump administration. In 1985, when he was a US attorney in Alabama and white supremacists were actively attempting to limit the political power of African Americans, Sessions prosecuted three black civil rights activists on voter fraud charges who had been fighting for fair access to the ballot. The prosecution was widely seen as racially motivated and led to the Senate’s rejection of Sessions for a position as a federal judge in 1986.

Ahead of the 2016 election, King backed up Trump’s false statements about how it was being rigged. “I do think it’s a good idea for the American voters to take a look at the system that we have,” King said during a CNN interview two weeks before the election. “There is significant evidence out there that there is voter fraud.” (For years, Republicans have successfully spread the myth that voter fraud is a major problem in US elections.)

Until the past couple of weeks, King hardly ever even acknowledged that Scholten was challenging him for re-election. But after news broke that the congressman had met with members of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria and spouted white nationalist talking points in an interview with a website associated with the party at the tail-end of a trip to Poland paid for by a Holocaust memorial foundation, scrutiny over his extreme views reached new heights.

A late October poll — an outlier, to be sure, but also a further sign that the inevitability of King’s re-election was shattering — showed Scholten within 1 point of King. Scholten, who has campaign tirelessly for months and heavily outraised King, took in another $641,000 in just two days after the poll came out. By contrast, King has barely campaigned at all and didn’t make a TV ad buy until Nov. 2.

Now, King is sounding the alarm. “I need your help to fight back — or risk becoming a liberal sacrifice on their alter [sic] of ‘political correctness’ and quest for a morality-free, socialist utopia,” his campaign warned in a last-minute fundraising email Monday that also called the close poll “fake news” and news articles on his ties to the Freedom Party and white supremacists lies from “the radical leftist mob.”

Gavin Aronsen
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.