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Iowa bill would give more time to mail ballots after GOP cut voting time

iowa capitol building
Madeleine King
/
IPR
Election officials would have additional time to mail absentee ballots to voters under a bill that advanced Tuesday in the Iowa House of Representatives.

Election officials would have additional time to mail absentee ballots to voters under a bill that advanced Tuesday in the Iowa House of Representatives. This comes less than a year after Republican lawmakers voted to significantly cut the time allowed for voting by mail.

Before last year’s election law changes, county auditors could start mailing absentee ballots 29 days before Election Day. Under current law, they can start mailing absentee ballots 20 days before Election Day.

Rep. Dennis Bush, R-Cleghorn, sponsored a bill that would allow county election officials to start mailing ballots three business days before that.

Clayton County Auditor Jennifer Garms is president of the Iowa State Association of County Auditors, which supports the change. She said there are some security concerns when election officials are trying to mail ballots and handle in-person early voting at the same time in a shortened timeframe.

“We do not have a lot of office space,” Garms said. “So we usually end up having to move our ballots to a different office or put them in cages and move them out of the building entirely. We don’t want to have those ballots leave our offices, period.”

Garms said the additional time would allow county auditors to get the bulk of the mailed ballots to the post office and out to voters before people start coming to the auditor’s office to vote early in person. She said it would also help reduce errors by her staff and save the county money by not having to employ temporary staff.

Ringgold County Auditor Amanda Waske also said the 20 days to mail absentee ballots and vote early in person has been an issue.

“That presents a lot of confusion when [voters] don’t think that they’re getting their ballots,” Waske said. “So they’re coming in wanting to early in-person vote when their ballot has already been mailed.”

Waske said voters are asked to return their un-voted ballot to the auditor, but they don’t always do that. She said that presents a security issue.

County auditors had raised these concerns last year with lawmakers before Republicans made wide-ranging changes to the state’s election laws, but the legislature went forward with the changes. At the time, key supporters of the changes said they were necessary to enhance election integrity. But they also said they didn’t know of any problems with the integrity of Iowa’s elections, and they never explained how giving less time to vote would make elections more secure.

All three Republican lawmakers at the meeting Tuesday who said they support scaling back this one part of last year’s election bill voted for last year’s election bill. No Democrats voted for it.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers at Tuesday’s subcommittee expressed concerns about how some of the changes are affecting absentee voting.

Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, said she mailed an absentee ballot application last year that took seven days to get from Des Moines to Davenport, and she missed the deadline.

She said she would like to see five additional days to mail ballots instead of three. Winckler also said she’d like to reverse the law that requires absentee ballots to be received by county auditors by the time polls close on Election Day. Previously, voters could put their ballots in the mail the day before Election Day and they’d be counted days later if marked with a barcode showing when it was sent.

“We’ve shortened the front end, and we’ve also really cut off the access to the ballot on the back end,” Winckler said.

Rep. Rob Bacon, R-Slater, said he would be willing to co-sponsor an amendment to give five extra days, because he said the postal service isn’t as fast as it used to be.

“And your other issues, too, with the barcode and everything—very legitimate from what I’m hearing,” Bacon said to Winckler.

But Rep. Bush, the bill sponsor, said the Senate would not support five additional business days.

“At three, we’ve still got a fighting chance,” Bush said. “So that’s why it was written that way.”

A spokesperson for Senate Republicans said that does not represent their position, and that the Senate GOP is content with the current voting laws.

Rep. Jane Bloomingdale, R-Northwood, joined Bacon and Winckler in advancing the bill.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter