State Republicans pass bill to restrict early voting, voting by mail and voting on Election Day in Iowa

Voters cast their ballots at Horace Mann Elementary School in Iowa City on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Just eight days after it was introduced in the Iowa Legislature, a bill that would make it harder to vote but easier to remove people from voting rolls, and creates new criminal liability for local election officials, received its final approval. On Wednesday night, the Republican-controlled Iowa House of Representatives sent the bill to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk on a party-line vote.

The legislation passed the Iowa Senate on Tuesday, also on a party-line vote. No Democrat voted in favor of the 37-page bill as it was rushed through the Iowa House and Senate.

SF 413 is part of a pattern seen across the county, as statehouse Republicans introduce bills that impose restrictions on voting. According to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice, such bills have been introduced in 33 state legislatures so far.

“These bills are an unmistakable response to the unfounded and dangerous lies about fraud that followed the 2020 election,” the center said in a report earlier this month.

Iowa set a record for turnout in the November 2020 election. More than 1.7 million votes were cast, and over 1 million of them were cast through early voting or voting by mail. Those two options, both of which rely on using an absentee ballot, are the main targets of the restrictions in SF 413.

The final version of the bill prohibits county auditors from sending an absentee ballot request form to a voter unless the voter specially requests one. Prior to the election in November, many county auditors, as well as the Iowa Secretary of State, sent out request forms to all active voters, which helped drive the record-setting turnout.

Currently, voters can ask for an absentee ballot request form up to 120 days before an election. The bill would cut 50 days off that period, reducing it to 70 days. Early voting would also be curtailed, going from 29 days to 20 days, making Iowa’s early voting period one of the shortest in the country.

One of the most common methods of voting early in more populous counties — casting a ballot at a satellite voting location –becomes more difficult under the provision of this bill. Instead of allowing the county auditor to choose sites based on previous voter turnout and availability and suitability of spaces, satellite locations could only be set up in response to a petition signed by 100 registered voters. The voters must specify the site for the satellite voting location in the petition.

The Linn County Auditor’s office set up an early in-person voting site in the food court of Lindale Mall, 4444 1st Ave NE ahead of the 2020 general election. Oct. 6, 2020. — Jessica Abdoney/Little Village

Voting by mail would also be curtailed. Under current law, as long as a mailed ballot is postmarked by Election Day and received in the auditor’s office by the Monday after the election, it is considered valid. SF 413 changes that so only ballots that are received by 8 p.m. on Election Day will be counted.

The bill also makes returning an absentee ballot more difficult. County auditors are only allowed one drop box for people who want to personally return a ballot instead of trusting it to the mail, and for the first time, the location of drop boxes would be written into law. The boxes could only be located in an auditor’s office or immediately adjacent to the building where the office is located.

Voters would be restricted in who they can ask for help returning an absentee ballot. Under SF 413, only a member of a person’s immediate family, a member of their household or an authorized election official could put another’s sealed ballot envelope in a drop box or mail it. If a neighbor or cousin who doesn’t live with the voter did it to be helpful, they could be charged with a crime.

Democrats offered an amendment before the Senate vote on the bill that would have allowed a voter to designate an individual outside their immediate family and household to return or mail a ballot envelope for them, but Republicans rejected it.

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

Republicans in the Senate did approve an amendment that curtails in-person voting on Election Day.

The amendment reduces the time polls are open on Election Day by an hour, meaning they would close at 8 p.m. instead of 9 p.m. Current law also requires employers to give employees up to three hours off on Election Day so they can vote. The bill reduces that to two hours.

“It’s going to remain really easy to vote after this legislation’s signed into law,” Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, a Republican from Wilton and the bill’s floor manager in the House, said during the discussion before the vote on Wednesday night. “This protects Iowans’ right to vote, and it adds certainty and security to it. This bill does not suppress one single vote.”

Notably absent from the bill are the measures to ensure election integrity and security recommended by experts, such as election audits, enhanced training for election workers or upgrades to computer systems.

Although supporters of SF 413 claim it is needed to ensure the integrity of Iowa elections, none have claimed any fraud occurred in the state during the last election. Some, such as House Speaker Pat Grassley and Sen. Jason Schultz of Schleswig cited thoroughly discredited allegations of fraud in other states as the bill advanced through the legislature, but did not explain why those examples meant opportunities to vote in Iowa need to be restricted.

“Iowa has clean, fair elections,” Rep. Sharon Steckman, a Democrat from Mason City, said before the House vote. “This bill is based on lies and makes it harder for Iowans to vote. We should be making it easier for Iowans to vote.”

Kaufmann cited the fact that the November election in Iowa was so successful as a reason to change election laws.

“It is my view that government should be run like a business,” he said on Wednesday. “What do you do when you have a very successful year in business? Do you put it on auto pilot, walk away and hope it replicates itself? No.”

When it was her chance to speak, Rep. Kristin Sunde, a Democrat from West Des Moines, responded to Kaufmann’s “business” argument.

“If we’re trying to be like a business here, we should ask ourselves will reducing the hours or the number of days a week we’re open lead to more sales and happier customers?” she said.

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton. Official photo.

Kaufmann, the only Republican to speak on the bill, did not directly engage with any of the statements made by Democrats during the five hours of discussion on the House floor, which is why what happened on Wednesday cannot properly be called a debate.

Kaufmann also did not directly reference former President Trump and the lies about widespread fraud peddled by Trump and his supporters since the election. In fact, he began and concluded his remarks on Wednesday by claiming “this bill has nothing to do with fraud.”

Speaking before the Senate vote on Tuesday, Sen. Jim Carlin, a Republican from Sioux City, struck a very different note.

“Millions and million and millions of people believe there was fraud,” Carlin, who announced last week he is running for the U.S. Senate in 2022, said to explain why he considered the bill important. “Most of us in my caucus, in the Republican caucus, believe the election was stolen.”

According to Kaufmann, it’s the people who believe the phony claim from Trump, not the people who will find it harder vote if SF 413 becomes law, who are the real victims of voter suppression.

“The ultimate voter disenfranchisement is any voter not having faith our election system,” he said.

One of the ballot drop boxes installed at the Johnson County Administration Building, Oct. 6, 2020. — Paul Brennan/Little Village

The significant restrictions on voting contained in SF 413 have gotten the most attention, but the bill goes well beyond that.

Under Iowa law, active voters do not have their status changed to inactive unless they have missed two consecutive general elections, and their local auditor has mailed them an address verification card, which was subsequently returned to the auditor’s office as undeliverable. SF 413 changes that, requiring an auditor to change a voter’s status to inactive after missing one general election.

The bill also makes it harder for candidates for federal and statewide office to get on the ballot, by increasing — in some cases doubling or quadrupling — the number of signatures needed on a nominating petition and the number of eligible voters who participate in a local convention that selects candidates.

Writing in the Gazette, Iowa elections expert John Deeth described the increased requirements for candidates as “a nod to the Libertarians.”

“This is about a persistent Libertarian candidate who has pulled just enough votes away from Republican David Young to allow Democrat Cindy Axne to win two terms in Congress with under 50 percent of the vote,” according to Deeth.

It should be noted that the Republicans who wrote the bill did not raise the bar that candidates for the Iowa House and Senate must meet.

The bill increases the amount of work county auditor’s offices must do and decreases the number of days they have to do it. It also exposes local election officials to significant legal jeopardy, and limits their authority to make decisions.

Any problems in administering elections could result in criminal charges. 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 allows the Secretary of State to impose thousands of dollars in fines for any “technical infraction” by local officials administering an election. It also requires all such infractions to report 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.

The bill was opposed by the Iowa State Association of County Auditors. None of the state’s 99 county auditors spoke out in favor of it.

The bill has been sent to Gov. Kim Reynolds for her signature. During her news conference on Thursday morning, the governor was asked about the bill.

“If you give folks less time to vote and fewer opportunities to vote, how is that good for democracy?” a reporter asked.

Reynolds did not answer that question in her reply. Instead, she said she had not yet had a chance to review SF 413 and would not comment on it until she did. It is the standard response Reynolds gives whenever she is asked about a controversial bill passed by the legislature. The governor will claim she can’t comment on it because she is still in the process of reviewing right up until she signs the bill into law.

Another reporter asked Reynolds, “Did you see any problems with this last election that needed to be solved?”

“You know what?” she replied. “I think we do it well in Iowa, I’m proud of our system, I think we’re a role model for other states, but we should always be looking at ways that we can enhance and improve. I said that way early on.”

Reynolds then went on to echo Kaufmann about the need to cater to those who believe the lies about the election Trump has told.

“But the fact of the matter is there are Americans across the state [sic] that have some concerns about what happened in this last election,” the governor said. “And again I think it’s imperative that it’s not just understood, but they feel there’s integrity in the election process and they feel that it’s fair, and it’s done in an equitable manner. And so, we’ll take a look at the legislation that passed and we’ll make a determination moving forward.”

Reynolds, however, did not suggest that those concerns could be addressed by political leaders refuting the lies of the ex-president and his supporters.

Speaking on Wednesday, Kaufmann said there are “tens of thousands of Iowans who emphatically support” the changes SF 413 would make. But there no evidence of that as the bill sped through the legislature.

On Monday night, the House held a public hearing on the bill via Zoom. A total of 1,206 Iowans registered to speak. Not everyone was able to speak, but all of them indicated whether they opposed or supported SF 413. Only 27 were in favor of it, while 1,179 opposed it.

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