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Republican Senators Advance Wide-Ranging Changes To Iowa Election Laws

voting sign
John Pemble / IPR file

Republican senators advanced a wide-ranging elections bill Thursday ahead of a key statehouse deadline for legislation to remain eligible in this session.

It would block students at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa from voting early on campus. That’s one result of a proposed overall ban on hosting satellite voting stations in state-owned buildings, which would also include the Iowa Veterans Home.

“It’s not only discriminatory, but it’s also a violation of voting rights,” said Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque. She noted students at private colleges in Iowa could still have the opportunity to vote early on campus.

Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, sponsored the bill and ushered it through the Senate State Government Committee.

“The point of this bill is uniformity of elections across the state,” Smith said.

He added it would also increase transparency and help ensure Iowa’s elections are fair and safe.

But opponents say it would restrict access to the ballot box for many Iowans, especially college students, senior citizens and people with disabilities.

“This bill always chooses the option that restricts people’s voting rights,” said Daniel Zeno, a lobbyist for the ACLU of Iowa.

In general elections, polling places would close at 8:00 p.m. instead of the current 9:00 p.m.

Sen. Smith said that brings everything in line with local elections, in which polls close at 8:00 p.m.

“We already have people that show up at 8:15 p.m. on a school board or municipal election, and they can’t vote. Because in their minds, they think it’s open until 9:00,” Smith said. “Now why would they think that? Because we put them on a rollercoaster of closing times of 8:00, 9:00, 8:00, 8:00, and 9:00. That makes no sense to me.”

Voters’ signatures on absentee ballot affidavits would also have to be compared with signatures county auditors have in their records to verify their identities. Democrats and a lobbyist for the AARP said that could result in disenfranchising senior citizens and people with disabilities, because their signatures change over time.

Another major election change in this bill is mail-in ballots would have to be received by the county auditor before polls close on Election Day in order for the ballots to be counted.

Current law states mail-in ballots must be put in the mail no later than the day before the election.

Smith said this section was requested by county auditors. But it runs in direct opposition to a bipartisan bill that advanced Tuesday in the House. The House bill would require all counties to use the same mail tracking system to ensure that ballots mailed on time and received after Election Day are counted.

“What if your constituent voted absentee, dropped that ballot in the mail the day before the election, and for whatever reason it takes 36 hours for the post office to get that ballot to the election office,” Jochum said. “It’s now Wednesday morning. That ballot won’t be counted.”

The bill would also require public university students to indicate on a new form if they will stay in Iowa after graduation. If they say they are leaving, the state would cancel their voter registration.

“This seems to be a way of removing them from the voter rolls,” said Keenan Crow of One Iowa Action. “And they may change their plans and have to re-register. We’re not doing that to any other group, so I’m not sure why we’re doing that to students.”

Smith said this is because the “biggest transitional time” in someone’s life is when they graduate from college. He said he sees names on the registered voter list of people who don’t live in Iowa anymore.

“We don’t want extra people on the voter rolls,” Smith said. “It’s just not good to have a lot of names on the voter list.”

This provision only applies to students at UI, ISU and UNI—not students at private colleges in Iowa. Smith said lawmakers could look at changing that.

The bill includes many more changes to Iowa’s election laws. It passed out of the Senate State Government Committee with a 10-5, party-line vote. It can now be debated by the full Senate.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter