[Image courtesy of zoom1]

For four years, Iowa has been the scene of numerous fierce battles over election policy including voter ID and investigations/prosecutions of ineligible voters. At the center of it all has been Secretary of State Matt Schultz, who was elected in 2010 and spent the next four years making good on his promise to focus on voter fraud, usually with great fanfare but little effect. Now, however, Schultz is leaving the office after an unsuccessful primary run for Congress and his election in November as Madison County attorney.

His successor, fellow Republican Paul Pate, who also served as SoS from 1995-1999, is signalling some significant shifts in his term, including online voter registration and adoption of epollbooks – which could themselves help address the lingering disagreement over voter ID. The Des Moines Register has more:

Incoming Secretary of State Paul Pate says allowing Iowans to register to vote online will be a top priority when he takes office next month.

The effort is already underway, and online registration should be available before next fall’s local government elections, he said.

Pate, a Republican, will succeed Matt Schultz as the state’s top elections administrator after winning a statewide election in November. The transition opens a new chapter for an office that was at the center of several legal and political fights over the last four years…

“All elections offices in the country really have to work harder at keeping the technology updated and balancing out participation with integrity,” he said.

His first action will be on the participation side of the ledger. Online registration was highlighted by Pate and his Democratic challenger alike during the campaign and appears to have broad bipartisan support.

Regulations creating an online registration process have already been drafted and likely will get a formal hearing before the end of the year. Pate called Web registration the most significant expansion of voter access since Iowa enacted a motor-voter law linking registration with driver licensing.

“That’s going to really, really increase voter registration again,” he said, adding, “You’ll be able to pick up your cellphone and be able to register to vote.”

Pate also has plans for allowing Iowans serving on active duty in the military to vote online – another step that could boost participation.

He is talking about ballot security measures, too, however.

During the campaign and more recently, Pate has walked a fine line on voter photo ID requirements, which are widely popular among Republicans but seen by Democrats as a partisan tool for disenfranchisement.

Pate told the Register he supports photo-verification of voters at the polls, but is interested foremost in expanding electronic pollbooks – the computer programs used in many counties to check in voters and verify their identity. Pollbooks could contain photos, he said, and represent a less onerous verification system than requiring voters to produce a government-issued photo ID card.

“My goal is very clear: I think we need some type of voter ID,” he said. “Now, whether that’s aggressive or passive, that will be determined as we go through to process.”

Pate added that he’s interested in exploring electronic signature verification for absentee ballots, given the growing popularity of early voting by mail and the potential for fraud inherent in that process.

It’s clear that Pate understands the desire for a different approach from the Iowa SoS office:

The pursuit of voter ID requirements and criminal investigations into voter fraud defined Schultz’s term in office, setting the office on a collision course with Democrats, Latino groups, the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and others who interpreted the moves as a way to depress turnout or intimidate voters away from the polls …

Pate, who previously served as secretary of state from 1995 to 1999, subtly distanced himself from Schultz’s approach, pledging to reach out to Democrats and Republicans and pointing to a history of working with all stakeholders on voter issues.

“My track record was pretty good when I served before in regard to bringing a bipartisan agenda to the Legislature on election laws,” he said.

As a New Year approaches, here’s hoping that more people in the election field take that commitment to bipartisanship to heart. Here’s hoping that Iowa’s efforts to walk back from what my friend and colleague Rick Hasen calls “the Voting Wars” are not only successful but inspire similar movements in other states.

Stay tuned – and see you next year! [The blog will return Friday, January 2.]