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Iowa Senate Adds Controversial Election Law Changes To Bipartisan House Proposal

voting sign
John Pemble / IPR file
The proposed additions to the bill include closing polls one hour earlier in general elections, signature verification for mail-in ballots, and requiring college students to turn in a form before graduation indicating whether they plan to stay in Iowa.

An Iowa Senate committee voted Wednesday to add numerous election law changes to a narrow House proposal that would ensure mail-in ballots are counted in a consistent manner across the state.

The House proposal, which passed that chamber unanimously, is a bipartisan effort to avoid repeating the uncertainty and a battle between Republicans and Democrats over a recent contested election in northeast Iowa.

Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, led a Senate committee in incorporating that House bill into his lengthy and controversial proposal to change many aspects of Iowa election laws.

“This goes with what we’re trying to do—checks and balances, transparency and uniformity across this state when it comes to elections,” Smith said.

But Democrats said these changes would put up barriers for Iowans who want to vote.

“A state that used to be very welcoming, that used to make sure that our elections were open to everyone, that they were legally counted—we’re making it harder and harder as we go along to exercise that constitutional right,” said Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque.

Republican senators on the state government committee, with the exception of Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, voted to add provisions including closing polls one hour earlier in general elections, signature verification for mail-in ballots, and requiring all college students to turn in a form before graduation indicating whether or not they will stay in Iowa.

Sen. Eric Giddens, D-Cedar Falls, said he works at the University of Northern Iowa and said where a student plans to reside has nothing to do with their graduation.

“Let alone, what does that have to do with their eligibility to vote in an election? That’s a serious concern for me,” Giddens said. “And I think for most of us, if not all of us, graduating from college is probably the most uncertain time in your entire life. You don’t know where you’re going to be after that.”

The students who say they are leaving Iowa would have their voter registration status changed to “inactive.” Smith said that gives them plenty of time to indicate if they want to vote in Iowa again before their voter registration would be canceled.

Smith said some of the proposals were recommendations from the Iowa State Association of County Auditors, and he said Democrats were making false statements about what the bill would do.

“I take the auditor’s suggestions, and the arrows are shot at me,” Smith said. “That’s fine, I can take it. If you’re going to shoot them at me, it’s only fair to shoot them at the auditors if you’re going to do that.”

Senate bill would phase out House agreement on mail-in ballots

Smith’s bill includes language that was unanimously passed by the House that requires all county auditors to use the same mail tracking system on absentee ballots. House Republicans and Democrats agree it would ensure that ballots mailed on time and received after election day get counted.

But Smith’s bill says that provision would end May 1, 2023. Unless the lawmakers act before then, a new law would kick in requiring mail-in ballots to be received by the end of election day in order for them to count.

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, is Smith’s counterpart in the House of Representatives. He said he will not support that part of the bill, but will consider some of the other changes.

“This shows how important this is to the Senate,” Kaufmann said. “I think they clearly make this a huge priority by attaching it something that’s important to us.”

He said he would prefer having the original House bill signed into law.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter