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.