‘It’s voter suppression’: Iowa Republicans target voting access, citing Trumpian election conspiracy theories

A sign sits outside of the State Hygienic Laboratory in Coralville, a polling place during the Iowa primary election, June 2, 2020. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

At least 33 state legislatures around the country, most of them controlled by Republicans, are working on bills that restrict voting. Iowa is one of them.

“These bills are an unmistakable response to the unfounded and dangerous lies about fraud that followed the 2020 election,“ the Brennan Center for Justice said in a report on the bills published earlier this month.

Republican leaders in the Iowa Legislature are fast-tracking SSB 1199, a Senate bill imposing new restrictions on voting and stripping local control over elections, as well the identical bill in the House, HSB 213. The House and Senate bills were introduced on Tuesday, and approved by a subcommittees that next day. The Senate State Government Committee and the House State Government Committee approved the bills on Thursday.

Bill have only received support from Republicans.

The bills would sharply limit the early voting, strip away much of the local control of elections, increase the number of people removed from voting rolls and make local election officials pay thousands of dollars in fines if they commit a “technical infraction.” It would also make harder for candidates to qualify to be on the ballot for statewide and federal office.

The legislation would prohibit county auditors from mailing out absentee ballot request forms for any reason. The period for requesting an absentee ballot would be reduced from 120 days before an election to 79 days, and early voting would be cut from 29 days to 18 days.

The early voting period in Iowa had lasted 40 days, until Republicans won control of both chambers of the legislature in 2016 and then pushed through a bill that reduced it on a series of party-line votes in 2017. That same bill imposed the 120-day period for requesting an absentee ballot. Prior to that, a voter could request an absentee ballot even several months before an election.

The bills also restrict county auditor offices to one drop box for ballots returned by early voters and requires that drop box to “be located at the office” of the auditor or immediately adjacent to the building housing the office.

People permitted to drop off a sealed ballot envelope for another early voter would be limited to members of a person’s immediate family or household, a caregiver or certain election officials. A cousin who lives closer to an auditor’s office or a well-intentioned neighbor would be breaking the law by dropping off someone else’s ballot envelopment if a reconciled version of these bills pass and are signed by the governor.

The bill also removes a county auditor’s ability to select a satellite voting site for early in-person voting. Instead, a satellite voting site could only be set up in response to a petition signed by 100 registered voters requesting a site in a particular location. It would be up to the petitioners to name the location in the petition; the auditor’s office would no longer be able to determine the best site for a satellite location.

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, a Republican from Wilton and a member of the House subcommittee that approved that chamber’s bill, said he thought the restrictions would lead to a shorter period of heavy campaigning by candidates, something most people would appreciate.

“People were sick of phone calls and robocalls, text messages, door-knocking, commercials,” Kaufmann said during the subcommittee hearing.

Speaking to reporters this week, House Speaker Pat Grassley, a Republican from New Hartford who supports the restrictions, made the same point.

“We hear a lot about Iowans — and probably all across the country, but in Iowa — folks just, you know, it’s the exhausting length of the campaigns,” Grassley said.

Rep. Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford. — official photo.

Grassley said he didn’t believe shortening the early voting period would affect voter turnout. He noted that even though the legislature cut the early voting period by 11 days in 2017, the number of ballots cast in the 2020 general election set a new record.

“We have proven that time really doesn’t matter when it comes to immediate impact on voter turnout,” Grassley said. “And again, when we shortened from 40 to 29 days, we had record turnout. I don’t see why that would be a concern. It clearly increased turnout in the last election.”

Of course, the record turnout in the last election was driven by people voting by absentee ballot. In order to facilitate voting during the pandemic, county auditors heavily promoted the use of absentee ballots. Some mailed absentee ballot request forms to every active voter in their county, and the Iowa Secretary of State eventually request forms to every active voter in the state.

The legislation moving through the House and Senate would prohibit county auditors from mailing out these forms, even if a voter requests one. It would also cause more Iowans to be removed from the voter rolls.

Currently, if a voter misses two or more consecutive general elections, the local county auditor’s office sends a card to the voter’s address. If the card is returned by the post office because the person no longer lives there, the voter’s name will be removed from the list of active voters. The new legislation would change that.

Any voter missing one general election, who has not already reregistered at a different address, will be switched to inactive status. The county auditor’s office would not need to wait until a verification card is sent and returned, and an auditor would be prohibited from sending more than one card informing a vote of a change in status during any four-year period.

Early voting by absentee ballot and voting by mail have been repeatedly cited as problems by Donald Trump and his supporters in their false claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election. There is no evidence of such fraud in any state, but that has not prevented Trump and others from lying about it, or demanding state legislatures impose new voting restrictions. The vast majority of those restriction are likely to disproportionately effect voters who support Democrats, according to experts such as the Brennan Center.

According to Grassley and other Republicans in the Iowa Legislature, the new restrictions they are supporting are needed to make elections in the state more secure.

“Quite honestly, one of the biggest issues we hear about is election security,” Grassley said. “I know folks would say, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re probably just, you know, you’re just mad about the presidential election.’ But I don’t think that’s what it’s about. If you look down in Georgia, at the two Senate races, a lot of feedback that we’re hearing from there is concerns about election security, election integrity.”

There is no evidence of any fraud affecting the recent Georgia Senate elections, both of which were won by Democrats.

“I think we do a great job here in Iowa, but I think there’s an expectation from the voters,” Grassley continued. “We saw some things, maybe, in the last election, that we were uncomfortable with. And there’s an expectation from voters to make sure we do everything we can to have secure and safe elections, and so that’s why we’re being proactive with the bill.”

Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig. Official photo

Republican Sen. Jason Schultz of Schleswig said that new restrictions on voting were needed because Iowans “were disenfranchised” by alleged fraud in other states,” even though the claims of wrongdoing in Philadelphia he referenced have already been debunked and thrown out of state and federal courts.

“I think myself that Iowans’ votes were disenfranchised by some shady dealings in five cities around the country that I think shows what happens when you don’t strengthen your election system, when you allow people to game elections to the point that they did in cities such as Philadelphia,” Schultz said at a hearing this week.

Schultz, like Trump or any of his followers, did not produce any evidence of such election-changing gaming, because no one has uncovered any.

The proposed legislation is opposed by the auditors who administer elections in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. Ryan Dokter, president of the Iowa State Association of County Auditors, told lawmakers this week it would “create hardships for both large and small counties.”

Dokter, a Republican, is the county auditor of Sioux County, one Iowa’s most Republican counties.

Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz, a Democrat, told lawmakers that cutting early voting will likely increase the amount of work auditor’s offices have to do during the shortened period. Rather than strengthening the voting system, it may lead to more errors, she warned.

“The more overtime you cause your staff to work, the more likely it is that you’re going to make mistakes,” Moritz said. “You’re setting us up to fail.”

Any problems in administering elections could result in criminal charges, under the changes Republicans are proposing. The “home rule powers” of county auditors that allow them to exercise their own judgment in some aspects of running elections would be eliminated. Instead, the guidelines published by the Secretary of State would become mandatory for all counties. Any failure to fully or correctly follow those guidelines could result in large fines or prison time for local election officials.

The bill requires the Secretary of State to report any “technical infraction” by local elections officials to the Iowa Attorney General as well as the local county attorney. Election officials could then be charged with a Class D felony, which is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,245.

“I’m understanding that the intent of [the bill] is to prevent any willful disregard for the law,” Dokter told lawmakers. “But, in the way I read it, it scares me that, if there’s inadvertent omissions or just accidental mistakes, that then there’s going to be extremely harsh penalties in the form of fines or imprisonment.”

Replying to concerns about minor errors resulting criminal charges, Rep. Kaufmann said there was no reason to worry, because “No secretary of state in their right mind” would report minor violations.

“And if they [the secretary] did, they’ve [the official charged with a felony] got due process to be able to have the courts laugh it out of the courts, which I think they would do,” he said.

Supporters of the bill point to the 2020 general election to justify its criminal penalties.

Iowa’s absentee ballot request form for the June 2020 primary election. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

The auditors of Johnson, Linn and Woodbury counties sent out absentee ballot request forms that had some information already completed to voters. The auditors said they did so to make voting easier during the pandemic. After the mailing of the forms had begun, the Iowa Secretary of State issued guidelines that said only blank request forms could be sent to voters, and instructed the three auditors to invalidate the request forms they had already sent out.

The three auditors declined to do so, citing their authority to administer elections under the home rule provisions of Iowa law. The Trump campaign and the Iowa Republican Party sued all three auditors to make them comply with the secretary’s guidelines. The courts decided in favor of the Trump campaign and the Iowa GOP, and the auditors invalidated the pre-filled request forms and mailed out blank ones.

In addition to the Iowa State Association of County Auditors, a wide variety of organizations have registered in opposition to the bill, from the League of Women Voters of Iowa to AARP Iowa to the ACLU of Iowa. Only two organizations have registered in support of it: the Opportunity Solutions Project and the Kirkwood Institute, which has no connection to Kirkwood Community College.

The Florida-based Opportunity Solutions Project is a nonprofit that promotes policies favored by conservative politicians. The Kirkwood Institute, based in Des Moines, describes itself as a public interest ligation organization. Its president and chief consul is Alan Ostergren, the attorney who represented the Trump campaign and the Iowa GOP in their lawsuits against the three auditors.

In addition to restrictions that make it harder to vote, the bill also contains new requirements that make it harder for candidates to get on the ballot.

The number of signatures from eligible voters required on a nominating petition for a candidate for president and vice president, governor and lieutenant governor, as well as U.S. Senator would be increased from 1,500 to 3,500, including “at least” 100 signatures from “at least nineteen counties of the state.”

The number of signatures needed to nominate a candidate for the U.S. House by petition would go from 375 to 1,726.

For statewide offices, other than the ones already listed, the number of signatures necessary to appear on the ballot would increase from 1,500 to 2,500, including signatures from 77 eligible voters in 18 different counties.

The legislature is exempting its members from any such changes — signature requirements for the Iowa Senate and the Iowa House will remain the same.

Candidates can also be nominated at conventions, and the bill increases the number of eligible voters that must attend such conventions. For statewide offices, the number is doubled from 250 to 500. But to nominate a candidate for U.S. House of Representatives, the number is even higher, quadrupling from 50 to 250 voters in attendance.

According to longtime Iowa political writer John Deeth, the reason for making it harder to get on the ballot is obvious: Republicans blame third-party candidates for the party’s losses in the 3rd Congressional District in 2018 and 2020.

Even among the welter of bills seeking to restrict voting advanced by Republicans across the country, Iowa’s legislation is being recognized as particularly bad. Marc Elias, an election law expert and the attorney who oversaw the Biden campaign and the Democratic Party’s response to the more than 60 lawsuit filed by the Trump campaign following the election (Trump only won one, and it was on a procedural matter that had no effect on any election outcome), singled out Iowa’s proposed legislation as possibly the worst in the country in a recent tweet.

Local election officials have been blunt in their assessment of the proposed changes.

Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert told the national news site Talking Points Memo, “If you asked me to sum it up in two words, it’s voter suppression. There is so much garbage in there it’s unreal.”

Linn County Auditor Joel Miller characterized the legislation as vindictive to the Associated Press.

“It’s an affront to every county auditor in the state with a passion for creativity, election integrity and increasing voter turnout,” Miller said.

Gov. Reynolds has not yet taken a public stand on the bill. But at her news conference on Wednesday, she was asked if she supported reducing the time available for early voting.

Reynolds replied that she had supported the 2017 reduction of the early voting period.

“I thought what it was previously was too long and I think this was a compromise that they landed on,” the governor said. “So, it is a long period of time. I think it’s something we should continue to look at. So I’d be willing to take a look at that.”

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