Courts will have the final say over Iowa's voter ID law

New restrictions on voting in Iowa are headed to Governor Terry Branstad after one last party-line vote in the state Senate on Thursday. The final version of House File 516 contains voter ID and signature verification requirements that will surely prevent some eligible voters from having their ballots counted. For more on those barriers, read Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert’s statement enclosed below, testimony from the public hearing in the Iowa House last month, Bleeding Heartland guest posts by representatives of One Iowa and the American Civil Liberties Union, John Deeth’s “deep dig,” and the position paper from Iowa’s Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs. That commission took its first-ever stand on pending legislation out of concern House File 516 will “impede access to the voting booth.”

In addition, the bill shortens the window for early voting from 40 days before the election to 29. Deeth explained why Republicans picked 29 days: “Because that’s a Monday and it gives Democrats two fewer weekends to chase down those mailed ballots.”

House File 516 also eliminates the straight-ticket voting option, which about a third of general election voters used in 2016. Democrats are no more likely to vote straight ticket; last year, 258,827 ballots were marked straight-ticket Republican, 245,585 Democratic. Still, forcing everyone to fill out an oval for every race will add an unnecessary burden for some elderly voters or those with disabilities. For that reason, the change will increase “undervotes” for down-ballot races. Deeth pointed out that ironically, the biggest beneficiary from eliminating this option may be independent State Senator David Johnson, if he seeks re-election in 2018. The former Republican Johnson represents one of the reddest Iowa Senate districts.

An earlier Senate amendment had also added language about rotating candidate order on ballots. But that provision would have been impossible for county auditors to implement, so lawmakers removed it during House floor debate earlier this week.

Branstad has already made clear he will sign House File 516, even though he wishes Republicans had added one more restriction:

“It’s not in the legislation, but it’s something I would like to see and I think a lot of people who work an Election Day would love to see the Iowa polls close at 8 and I think the public would, too, like to see the returns and not have to wait up so late to see what the election results are,” he said.

Sure, why not make it less convenient for people with busy schedules to exercise their fundamental constitutional rights? As Gavin Aronsen commented, “God forbid we make people stay up past their bedtimes just so we have expanded access to the polls.”

Although Secretary of State Paul Pate and other Iowa Republicans deny their so-called “election integrity” bill is designed to suppress voting among certain groups, evidence points to the disenfranchising effects of such laws. U.S. Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner’s dissent in a 2014 case on Wisconsin’s voter ID law is worth reading, especially since Posner had written an earlier decision upholding Indiana’s voter ID law and is may be the most-cited legal scholar of our times.

Pate tried to craft a bill that could “withstand or avoid court challenge.” Nevertheless, the ACLU will surely go to court, claiming the voter ID and signature verification provisions unconstitutionally restrict a fundamental right and have a racially disparate impact. Other groups may join the lawsuit; the League of United Latin American Citizens, League of Women Voters, NAACP, and One Iowa all lobbied against House File 516 and testified at the public hearing. I enclose One Iowa’s latest statement below.

The ACLU has not responded to my inquiry about the timing of any challenge, but I expect it will follow soon after the bill signing. (The civil rights group filed its felon voting rights lawsuit only a few days after the 2014 general election; there were tactical reasons to avoid filing during that year’s campaign.) Although lawmakers have tinkered with House File 516 during the last month, the bill’s most important disenfranchising features have been publicly available for two and a half months, giving attorneys plenty of time to prepare a petition.

The Iowa Supreme Court will have the final say on whether the new restrictions serve a compelling governmental interest and are narrowly-tailored enough to justify making it harder for thousands of eligible voters to exercise a fundamental constitutional right. Limits on voting are subject to “strict scrutiny,” a higher standard of judicial review. Even if the high court upholds the most important voter ID and signature verification rules, justices may require the state to spend more money on voter education.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: I should have mentioned that advocacy groups may challenge Iowa’s new law in federal court rather than in the state courts. Federal case law in this area is mixed, with several state voter ID laws upheld but some struck down.

Statement from Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert, April 13:

“I am disappointed that the Legislature has taken this big step backward on voting rights. The only type of ‘fraud’ that a photo ID can address, voter impersonation, is simply non-existent.

This bill singles out voters who do not have Iowa drivers licenses. They will have to show a visibly different card in line. This calls attention to them and makes them more vulnerable to having their vote challenged. It also gets rid of the traditional voter card that gets sent to everyone, which many voters value and carry.

The voter ID bill also includes many unrelated items that do nothing to increase the integrity of elections:

· It shortens the time available for in person early voting. This forces voters who have made up their minds to wait, which makes the line longer for everyone.

· It shortens the window for mailing ballots to just 19 days, which decreases the chances that voters who have to send ballots a long distance will see their vote counted

· The bill eliminates the popular straight ticket option that nearly a third of Johnson County voters used last fall. This lengthens the voting process and as a result makes the lines longer.

· Poll workers with no professional training in handwriting analysis are forced to make judgements about signatures which may have changed over time.

None of these provisions does anything to help people vote. The process will be longer and more difficult, and there’s no question that some people who were able to vote under previous laws will be unable to vote.

Nevertheless, this will be the law, and we will follow and enforce it. We urge voters to be cooperative with our staff and poll workers and respectful of the people behind you in line. We are not happy with this law, but the election process is the only way to change it.

The final paragraph of HF516 says that the Secretary of State, in consultation with county auditors and the public, ‘shall develop and implement a comprehensive and statewide public education plan.’ I look forward to working with the Secretary of State’s office on this plan, and urge the Legislature and governor to fully fund it. We are already beginning work on our own plans to inform Johnson County voters about the new law.”

Statement from One Iowa, April 13:

“If this bill becomes law, it will disenfranchise many Iowa voters who may be members of the LGBTQ community like people of color, people with disabilities, elderly people, and others in a misguided attempt to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” Hoffman-Zinnel said. “Transgender Iowans will face unique challenges at the polls due to how difficult obtaining identity documents that accurately reflect their name and gender can be. In fact, new Iowa-specific data from the National Center for Transgender Equality indicates transgender Iowans would be impacted by this law even more than we initially thought. We are appalled that the Iowa Senate has chosen to make exercising the right to vote far more difficult and potentially dangerous for some of their constituents.”

According to Iowa-specific data from the National Center for Transgender Equality’s National Transgender Discrimination Survey, only 11% of respondents reported that all of their IDs had the name and gender they preferred, while 81% reported that none of their IDs had the name and gender they preferred. Additionally, 31% of transgender Iowans responding to the survey reported being verbally harassed, denied benefits or service, asked to leave, or assaulted when presenting identification that didn’t accurately reflect their name or gender, a situation transgender Iowans may find themselves in if HF 516 becomes law.

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