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Iowa Senate Bill Would Limit Election Officials' Ability To Change Voting Process During Pandemic

voting sign
John Pemble/IPR file photo
For the June 2 primary election, the Republican secretary of state sent mail-in ballot request forms to all registered voters to promote voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Iowa secretary of state would not be allowed to send applications for mail-in ballots to all registered voters under a bill passed Wednesday by Republicans in the Iowa Senate. 

Typically voters have to request a mail-in ballot application or find it online. For the June 2 primary election, Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate decided to send mail-in ballot request forms to all registered voters to promote voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic. Iowa ended up setting a new record for primary election turnout in the state.

The 30-page bill makes many other significant changes to state election laws, including expanding voter ID requirements and preventing the secretary of state from changing election procedures when there are federal candidates on the ballot. Democrats called it an attempt at voter suppression.

“What are you afraid of?” Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, asked Friday when the bill was being debated in a committee. “That more people in this state might engage in a constitutional right to cast a vote?”

Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, submitted the proposal as an amendment to a previously simple and non-controversial bill shortly before a legislative deadline. He said his constituents support voter ID measures and efforts to combat voter fraud.

“This ensures Iowa registered voters continue to have safe, secure and reliable elections,” Smith said.

Twenty-three Iowans were convicted of election misconduct in a five-year period before Iowa had a voter ID requirement, the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported.

The Iowa State Association of County Auditors, which represents Republican and Democratic election officials, opposes Smith’s bill.

“County auditors, as local commissioners of elections, are baffled by this,” ISACA President Roxanna Moritz said in a letter to lawmakers. “The 2020 primary was very successful, based on a variety of metrics, largely due to the steps taken by the Secretary. Counties experienced record or near-record turnout. Election Day went very smoothly. Results were rapidly available. Why would the state want to cripple the process that led to such success?”

Moritz added county auditors hoped they could use the experience in the primary election to prepare for the November election, which could also be affected by the ongoing spread of coronavirus. This bill would limit election officials’ ability to continue to respond to the pandemic.

Reporters asked Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds about the proposal Wednesday morning. 

"He sent out requests for absentee ballots, so I think that was fine," Reynolds said of Pate. "And I'll wait and see where they end up with the legislation. It's been a longstanding practice of mine not to comment on legislation until I see it in its final form." 

On Wednesday evening, the Iowa Senate passed the bill 30-19 with two Republicans joining all Democrats in voting against it. 

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives. 

This story was updated Thursday, June 11 at 9:21 a.m. 

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter