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Iowa Lawmakers Approve Sending Mail-In Ballot Request Forms To All Registered Voters

Organizers erected signs to draw attention to a one-day voting station at a Latino grocery in Des Moines, Iowa. Satellite voting locations are designed to make early voting more convenient.
IPR file
Iowa Public Radio
Organizers erected signs to draw attention to a one-day voting station at a Latino grocery in Des Moines. Satellite voting locations are designed to make early voting more convenient.

A group of Iowa lawmakers Friday unanimously approved the secretary of state’s proposal to send applications for mail-in ballots to all active registered voters ahead of the November election.

Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate sent the forms to all registered voters for the June primary election to encourage voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic, and Iowa set a new record for primary turnout.

He proposed doing that again for the November general election as the virus continues to spread in Iowa.

“I want Iowa voters and poll workers to be safe during this pandemic while we conduct a clean, fair and secure election,” Pate said in an emailed statement. “After consulting with all 99 county auditors, I believe the best way to accomplish that goal is by mailing an absentee ballot request form to every active registered voter in the state.”

But this time, Pate had to get approval from the Legislative Council, a Republican-led group of 24 lawmakers, because they passed a new law in June that requires the secretary of state to get emergency changes to election processes approved by the Council.

Republicans in the Iowa Senate had originally voted to bar the secretary of state from sending absentee ballot request forms to all registered voters.

But on Friday, all Republicans and all Democrats on the Legislative Council voted to approve the sending of ballot request forms.

“I want to applaud the secretary of state for bringing forward a proposal that I think is a good proposal,” said Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny. “We want as many people as possible to vote. We want this election to be as accessible as possible. And we also need it to be predictable for campaigns, and we need it be uniform across the state…and as secure as possible.”

At a July 1 meeting of the Legislative Council, Whitver said county auditors and other groups could choose to send the forms to voters instead.

A few county auditors have already started that process, and two went a step further in deciding to send the form with each person’s voter identification number filled in. Linn County Auditor Joel Miller, a Democrat, was one of them.

But the election changes approved by the Legislative Council Friday say county auditors may only send blank ballot request forms to voters.

In a statement posted on his blog, Miller said he disagrees.

“I do not believe the legislative intent of the code sections cited by the secretary was intended to give the secretary the discretion to pick and choose which election laws he wants to change,” Miller wrote. “And I certainly do not believe the legislative intent was for the secretary to create laws out of thin air and impose them on other duly elected officials.”

Democrats on the Legislative Council asked to amend Pate’s proposal to remove that part, and to require Pate to re-send voter identification numbers to voters before he sends the absentee ballot request forms.

Republicans rejected that.

“Taxpayers in counties where auditors have moved forward are now…going to be punished for moving forward as you changed the rules of the game in the middle of the process,” said Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines.

Democrats also proposed extending the 29-day absentee voting period to 40 days, something Pate did for the June primary election. Republicans rejected that as well.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter