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Iowa Republican Lawmakers Advance Bill To Shorten Early Voting Period

IPR file
Republicans in the Iowa Legislature are quickly advancing a wide-ranging elections bill that shrinks the early voting and voting by mail period from 29 to 18 days.

Republicans in the Iowa Legislature are quickly advancing a wide-ranging elections bill that shrinks the early voting and voting by mail period from 29 to 18 days, ends county “home rule” powers regarding elections, and proposes criminal penalties for election officials who don’t comply with state directives.

House and Senate Republicans advanced the proposal through separate subcommittees Wednesday and then through the House and Senate State Government Committees Thursday.

The bill would also ban county election officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters.

The state and some counties sent absentee ballot request forms to all active registered voters in 2020 as voting by mail was encouraged during the COVID-19 pandemic. But this language would also bar county auditors from sending an application to a voter who calls and requests one.

Lobbyist Amy Campbell said the League of Women Voters of Iowa, AARP Iowa, and the Area Agencies on Aging oppose the bill because it would make voting harder for Iowans who are older, have a disability or chronic health condition, or work multiple jobs.

“Not allowing the county auditor to send out a request form for any reason is a big concern,” Campbell said. “Individuals with disabilities or older Iowans might not have a printer to print it off at home, nor would they have transportation or the time to go down to their county auditor’s office to get that.”

It also restricts who can return an absentee ballot for a voter. Current law allows a voter to designate anyone to return their completed ballot to the county auditor. This bill would restrict that to household members, immediate family members, and caregivers.

The new set of election changes comes after Iowans set records for voter turnout and absentee voting in the 2020 general election, and election officials and some top Republicans in the state said Iowa’s election went smoothly.

When voting to advance the bill, Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, brought up debunked claims of voter fraud in other states.

“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.

There was no evidence of widespread voter fraud during the 2020 presidential election that would be enough to change the end result of Democrat Joe Biden winning the popular and electoral vote. Courts rejected Donald Trump’s appeals for lack of evidence. In many states, including Pennsylvania and Iowa, courts reviewed state election processes in pre-election lawsuits.

Four years ago, the Republican-led legislature reduced Iowa’s early voting period from 40 to 29 days.

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, was asked why he is proposing further shortening the early voting period. He said he often heard from voters that the campaign season, with all of its commercials and robocalls, is too long.

"I believe, as someone who campaigns, that it is nearly indisputable that we pick up our campaigning veracity when voting begins," Kaufmann said. "So I think it is a reasonable number of days...to fulfill what I believe is the will of the people to shorten our election cycle."

It’s not clear how shortening the absentee voting timeframe by 11 days would make a significant difference in the months-long campaign season. Kaufmann added that an 18-day early voting period is in line with the national average of 19 days.

“It appears to me that we area almost attempting to squeeze early voting out of existence,” said Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque. “And a lot of Iowans rely a great deal on that method of voting, and have become more reliant on it, especially during this pandemic. So I’m really trying to put my head around, what problem are we solving?”

The bill proposes criminal charges for county election officials who fail to perform any election duty or don’t comply with state election guidance.

Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, said it creates uniform election procedures across all counties and clarifies enforcement. He said the vast majority of county auditors, who run elections in their counties, help advance the integrity and security of Iowa’s elections.

“But we have to keep in mind, the state cannot have a handful of auditors that obstruct those goals to the detriment of Iowa voters,” Smith said. “Those auditors’ inability to follow the law, or their belief that that they have the power to create their own law or veto the laws that we have passed legally at this Capitol, has caused unnecessary confusion and wasteful spending of tax dollars in 2020.”

Three county auditors—in Linn, Johnson and Woodbury counties—sent ballot request forms to active registered voters pre-filled with voters’ personal information last summer. The Trump campaign and Republican Party sued and the courts ruled in their favor, canceling absentee ballot requests from tens of thousands of Iowa voters.

Under the bill, failing to follow the secretary of state’s election directives would be a Class D felony. Failing to perform any election duty would be an aggravated misdemeanor, and technical infractions would be punishable by fines up to $10,000.

Republican Sioux County Auditor Ryan Dokter is president of the Iowa State Association of County Auditors. He said the association opposes the bill for many reasons.

“We make mistakes at times, and the severe penalties may deter good, qualified people from public service,” Dokter said.

He said reducing the early voting period would lead to more staffing needs and overtime for county election workers, and create opportunities for mistakes. Dokter added the new restriction on county auditors setting up satellite early voting centers could create longer lines at the polls, and limitations on absentee ballot drop boxes would “create hardships for both large and small counties."

He said the bill could also take away some local decision-making power held by county auditors.

At a news conference Wednesday, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds was asked if she thinks the state’s 29-day early voting period is too long.

“I—you know—I can’t remember, I think we condensed that some,” Reynolds said, apparently referring to the previous change in the early voting period from 40 days to 29 days. “I thought what it was previously was too long and I think this was a compromise that they landed on. 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.”

In a statement, Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate said he respects that the Iowa Legislature sets the laws for how elections are conducted.

“My job is to administer elections in compliance with those laws,” Pate said. “I encourage all county auditors, election officials and candidates for office to play by the rules. As always, my office will be available to provide input and suggestions to legislators on proposed bills if asked.”

Other provisions in the bill:

  • Codifies the use of absentee ballot drop boxes. Each county can only have one, and it must be on the same property as the county auditor’s office. Last year, Pate's office caused confusion by telling counties they couldn’t use drop boxes, and later issued guidance similar to this proposed law.
  • Bans the secretary of state from sending absentee ballot request forms unless there is a public health emergency declared by the governor, and the mailing must be authorized by the Iowa Legislature or the Legislative Council. Last year, after Pate decided to send ballot request forms to all active registered voters for the June primary and extended the early voting period, Republican legislators passed a law requiring the secretary of state to get approval from lawmakers to make any election changes. The Legislative Council later approved the sending of ballot request forms to all active registered voters for the general election. This bill would specify that process can only happen during a public health crisis.
  • Prohibits county auditors from sending absentee ballot request forms that are pre-filled with voters’ personal information.
  • Shortens the time period to request an absentee ballot. Current law allows that to start 120 days before Election Day. The bill would change it to 70 days.
  • Takes away the county auditor’s discretion in setting up early satellite voting sites (any early voting sites not at the auditor’s office). The bill will only allow early voting sites where requested by petition.
  • Raises the convention and petition thresholds for candidates to get on the ballot.
  • Changes instructions for how county auditors notify voters if they submit an absentee ballot without a signature.
  • A voter’s registration will be marked inactive if they did not vote in the most recent general election or update their registration.
  • Sets out additional requirements and penalties for election officials to perform voter list maintenance.
Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter