Proposed legislation centered on voting and elections raises concerns

Individuals participate in early, in-person absentee voting at the Johnson County Administration Building in Iowa City on Oct. 26, 2016. -- photo by Zak Neumann
Individuals participate in early, in-person absentee voting at the Johnson County Administration Building in Iowa City on Oct. 26, 2016. — photo by Zak Neumann

The end of election day and in-person voter registration — and increased voter I.D. requirements including photo I.D. — are being proposed in several bills that are raising concerns about future ballot box access in Iowa.

Over 5,000 Johnson County voters used Election Day registration in 2016. That includes voters who registered on Election Day, and during the early voting days after the pre-registration deadline of 10 days before general elections and 11 days before all other elections. Iowa’s Election Day registration has been in effect since 2008.

“Before 2008, I had to spend a whole week before the election telling people they couldn’t vote,” said John Deeth, an election technician in the Johnson County Auditor’s Office who volunteers in his free time as a Democratic activist. “People who are new to the process, or not familiar with it, they tune in at the last minute. That’s the time you should be welcoming people in, not turning people away.”

Under the proposed bills, Deeth’s concerns may be revived. Among the proposals are:

• A proposal from the Secretary of State’s Office that would require a voter ID
• A Senate bill that would require a photo voter ID
• A House bill that would eliminate election day and in-person absentee voter registration. (The Johnson County Auditor’s website has compiled a page with proposed election legislation.)

Opponents of the bills noted that the proposals are hardly surprising. The current Secretary of State, Paul Pate, campaigned on a platform including a proposal for voter IDs in 2014 and the 2016 Iowa GOP Platform included the statement: “We believe that only U.S. citizens bearing proper photo ID should be allowed to vote.” Currently, both chambers of the Iowa Legislature as well as the Governor’s Office are controlled by the Republican Party.

“Some form of ID is basically inevitable,” said Deeth. “The question is what kind of ID requirement will we get. Is it going to be something with some leeway or something very strict?”

The proposal from the Secretary of State’s Office was first mentioned during a Jan. 5 news conference, but details were not available until the 20-page proposed bill was filed on Jan. 29.

In his statement in early January, Secretary of State Paul Pate said that the legislation would help protect the integrity of Iowa elections. He also said efforts to expand electronic poll books to every precinct would help to reduce waiting times.

The statement came under fire, with Democratic legislators and activists pointing to Iowa’s track record for secure elections — with few cases of fraud found during recent investigations. They also pointed to Pate’s own statement ahead of November’s election, in which he praised Iowa as one of the “best states in the nation for both voter participation and voter integrity.”

Currently, registered voters may request a mailed absentee ballot up until the Friday before an election. Under Pate’s proposal, the request period would be cut off 10 days before general elections and 11 days before all other elections (which is the current pre-registration deadline).

Moving up the last date on which voters can request an absentee ballot could also reduce the number of voters able to cast a ballot, Deeth said. He noted that 668 voters requested ballots during the final week leading up to the 2016 election. Of those, 451 were able to successfully return a ballot that was counted.

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“That would be gone under the proposed legislation,” he said.

In mid-January, following criticism of his initial proposal, Pate issued a “MYTH vs. FACT” statement, including bullet points clarifying that the voter ID card put forward in his proposal would not be a photo ID and would be provided free of charge. The bullet points also pointed out that Pate’s proposal would not change Election Day registration. However, those two changes — requiring a photo voter ID and eliminating Election Day registration — could be made under other legislation put forward this session.

“One of the things that worries me is that the bill can always be amended,” Deeth said, pointing to the other legislative proposals as examples of what could be included in the bill once it makes its way through the legislature.

Under House File 150, which was introduced Jan. 31, both election day and in-person absentee voter registration would be eliminated. The bill was sponsored by 10 Republican representatives, including Rep. Sandy Salmon (R-Janesville). Salmon did not respond to efforts to reach out for a comment.

Bridget Fagan-Reidburn, an organizer with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, was among the lobbyists to register against the House bill. The group’s citizen lobby team was at the capitol on Wednesday, and voter ID and election day registration were among the issues they spoke to legislators about, she said. She noted that over 66,000 people across the state of Iowa registered to vote on the day of the 2012 election — a snapshot of how many people could potentially be disenfranchised from voting under the proposed legislation.

“Voting is a right that we have, and all of the restrictions or blocks that could be taking place will ultimately turn people away from voting,” Fagan-Reidburn said of the proposed legislation.

Voters head to the polls at the Robert A. Lee Recreation Center in Iowa City on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. -- photo by Zak Neumann
Voters head to the polls at the Robert A. Lee Recreation Center in Iowa City on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. — photo by Zak Neumann

Another bill, Senate File 47, put forward by Sen. Brad Zaun (R-Urbandale), would establish a photo voter ID requirement. It would also remove residential leases and property tax statements from the list of documents considered acceptable in proving residence for election day and in-person absentee registration.

Currently, the National Conference of State Legislatures lists seven states as having strict Photo ID laws in force in 2016: Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin. The Wisconsin law faced challenges before the November election, including a July 2016 decision from U.S. District Judge James D. Peterson.

The judge’s ruling struck down restrictions on early voting and required the state to reform the system used for issuing photo IDs. The head of Milwaukee’s elections argued that Wisconsin’s voter ID law likely contributed to lower voter turnout in the city after 41,000 fewer voters turned out in 2016 than in 2012.

Fagan-Reidburn said voter identification has been a key issue for Republicans for years and anticipated that they would likely push to get it through the legislature this year.

“Getting rid of same day voter registration is a very real possibility, but I don’t think as high on priority list as voter ID,” she said. “But no matter what we will be fighting it tooth and nail.”

She encouraged people to tell their stories about how voting regulations would impact their lives.

“Our legislators really pay attention to their constituents and what people in Iowa want,” she said.

Deeth said the proposed bills could prevent some individuals from making it to the polls and questioned the need for the new measures. He pointed to past investigations that only found a handful of voter fraud cases.

Deeth also said that during the 10 years he was worked on elections, he has never seen a person fraudulently impersonate another voter.

“It’s a game of percentages,” he said. “There will be just enough people for whom this will make it harder to vote. It seems like the punishment of denying people the right to vote is overkill when there’s not really a problem with voter impersonation.”

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