Iowa absentee ballot law improved, new voter suppression plans blocked

Iowa lawmakers adjourned for the year on April 27. Bleeding Heartland continues to catch up on some of the legislature’s significant work. Previous reporting related to the 2019 legislative session can be found here.

Republicans have enacted new voting restrictions in some two dozen states this decade. Iowa became part of that trend in 2017 with a law requiring voter ID, shortening the early voting period, and imposing new absentee ballot rules that are on hold pending litigation.

The march toward voter suppression appeared set to continue, with Governor Kim Reynolds winning a four-year term and the GOP retaining control over the Iowa House and Senate last November. Senate State Government Committee chair Roby Smith introduced a horror show election bill days before the legislature’s first “funnel” deadline in March. His Republican colleagues in the upper chamber later approved a bill with most of Smith’s bad-faith proposals.

But in a plot twist, House Republicans agreed to remove all the provisions that would make it harder to vote when House File 692 came back to the lower chamber. The final version, which Reynolds signed on May 16, contained largely technical code revisions and big improvements to the process for tracking and counting absentee ballots.

Follow me after the jump for a short history of a voter suppression tragedy averted.


The 2017 voter suppression law was among the most contentious measures considered that year, the first since 1998 under total Republican control of state government. Secretary of State Paul Pate revealed key elements of his voter ID proposal in early January. The first draft bill appeared in late January, weeks before a committee approved a version of it. The Iowa House then convened a public hearing at which dozens of speakers commented on various aspects of the legislation.

Republicans didn’t listen to valid points critics raised before passing the 2017 bill along party lines, but the legislative process allowed for public scrutiny.

In contrast, GOP legislators gave no hint of plans to substantially change election laws or procedures this year. Then Smith released the 59-page Senate Study Bill 1241 on March 5.

Smith must have been working on the proposal for weeks, if not months. Yet he dropped this bill two days before all legislation not dealing with taxes and appropriations were required to clear a House or Senate committee. Senate Study Bill 1241 cleared a subcommittee on March 6. The full State Government Committee advanced the bill along party lines the following day.

Although the Iowa legislature’s rules allow such behavior, it’s an abuse of power for a committee chair to fast-track a far-reaching bill so close to the funnel.

John Deeth, a longtime elections worker in the Johnson County, explained many elements of Smith’s “very bad” bill. Key points:

  • New language would prevent county auditors from putting satellite voting stations in state-owned buildings. That provision was widely viewed as a method to suppress early voting on the campuses of Iowa’s three state universities. It was almost certainly unconstitutional.
  • Absentee ballots could be counted only if they arrived at the county auditor’s office by the close of polls on election day. Thousands of ballots would be tossed under that standard. Current law allows counting of ballots with a valid postmark, if mailed before the election and received before the Monday after the election.
  • Polls would close at 8:00 pm instead of 9:00 pm for state and federal primary and general elections.
  • County auditors would make voters’ registrations “inactive” if the voter did not respond to one mailing. They would cancel the registration after a second notification with no response. Deeth noted, “These kinds of response required mailings have been big problems in other states – voters suddenly finding themselves unregistered.” Under current Iowa law, voters become inactive if mail sent to the address on record comes back as undeliverable.
  • Students graduating from state universities would be required to fill out a form stating their intention to remain in Iowa or reside elsewhere. The apparent idea was to get college graduates off the voter rolls more quickly. Deeth questioned the legality of the proposal, since ” No other group is targeted the same way.”
  • New signature verification requirements for absentee ballot affidavits would raise the risk of eligible voters having ballots thrown out simply because a person’s signature had changed over time.
  • A “sore loser” provision would stop Iowans from getting on the ballot as a general election candidate after losing a primary for the same office.
  • Signature requirements for third-party or independent candidates would greatly increase, and it would become tougher for such candidates to be nominated at party conventions.
  • County auditors would lose the authority to determine the order of candidates on the ballot, and the county seal (rather than auditor’s signature) would appear on ballots.
  • One section targeted State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald with more restrictive language on direct mail deemed to be “self-promotion with taxpayer funds.” Smith didn’t like how the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board had interpreted language Republicans added to a budget bill on the final day of the 2018 legislative session.
  • The Secretary of State’s office would no longer be responsible for publishing the text of proposed constitutional amendments approved by the Iowa House and Senate. Pate had suggested that change after his staff dropped the ball on two amendments lawmakers passed in 2018.

    Smith’s “disgraceful” bill generated extensive media coverage, including some national commentaries. Its biggest impact, though, was in Cedar Falls and Waterloo.

    The voter suppression proposals became public two weeks before a special election scheduled in Iowa Senate district 30, where a Democratic senator had resigned in February. The district includes the University of Northern Iowa campus. Reynolds had set the election during UNI’s spring break in an obvious attempt to reduce participation by students, staff, and faculty. Now Republicans seemed poised to use their power to make it harder for stakeholders at UNI, Iowa State, and the University of Iowa to vote in the future.

    Democratic Senate candidate Eric Giddens slammed the bill as “a slap in the face to everyone in the University of Northern Iowa community.” Early voting at satellite locations on or near campus was very high. Giddens won the special election by a double-digit margin against a well-known GOP opponent.

    According to multiple sources, some statehouse Republicans perceived that backlash against Smith’s proposals cost them a Senate seat. For whatever reason, GOP leaders never brought the election bill (renamed Senate File 575 after committee passage) to the Senate floor.


    The same day Smith unveiled his wide-ranging effort to make it harder for Iowans to vote, a bill designed to solve an actual voting problem advanced in the House.

    That legislation, eventually named House File 692, grew out of the contested election in Iowa House district 55. State Representative Michael Bergan led Democratic challenger Kayla Koether by nine votes according to the certified results. However, 29 absentee ballots that Winneshiek County residents cast on time were never counted or even examined. Republicans voted along party lines to dismiss Koether’s contest, despite a court ruling that said she would have the right to take depositions and “have the ballots opened and considered.”

    Republicans claimed (wrongly) that state law didn’t permit them to open the disputed ballots, because the envelopes lacked a certain kind of barcode.

    State Representative Steven Holt, who had chaired the temporary committee convened to handle the election contest, introduced a bill establishing new rules related to absentee ballot envelopes and counting procedures. State Representative Jon Jacobsen, who also served on the election contest committee, was assigned to manage the bill, amended to require all county auditors to order barcodes for absentee ballot envelopes. Under the proposal, late-arriving ballots could be counted if a tribunal determined the envelope bore any “postal service barcode traceable to a date of entry into the federal mail system not later than the day before the election.”

    The House State Government Committee unanimously advanced the bill, which passed the lower chamber by 96 votes to 0 on March 14. Here’s the version House members approved.

    With a resounding mandate from the lower chamber and support from the Secretary of State’s office and several advocacy groups, this narrowly-focused, uncontroversial bill should have sailed through the Senate.

    But Smith wasn’t ready to give up on his voter suppression dreams.


    When a Senate State Government subcommittee took up House File 692 on March 28, representatives of the Secretary of State’s office and the League of Women Voters were among the witnesses speaking in favor of the legislation. Woodbury County Auditor Pat Gill also encouraged senators to advance the bill. Having used the postal barcodes, he could attest to the system’s accuracy in allowing officials to make the right decisions, counting ballots that had been mailed on time while rejecting those mailed on or after election day.

    Smith didn’t tip his hand during that subcommittee meeting, saying he would continue to research the issue.

    Days later, he offered a 59-page amendment incorporating most ideas from his earlier bill into House File 692. Here’s amendment S-3119:

    The tactic was a back-door way to make it through the legislature’s second “funnel.” All bills not dealing with taxes or appropriations had to get through one chamber and a committee in the other chamber in order to stay alive after April 5. Although Smith’s earlier bill never came up for a full Senate vote, he could keep the proposals in play by attaching them to a live round.

    Deeth comprehensively covered Smith’s amendment here. In addition to technical changes, mostly recommended by the Secretary of State’s office, here are the important features:

  • Instead of a ban on early voting in state-owned buildings, the amendment called for “draconian reporting requirements” on “each state-owned building in the county that may be petitioned for a satellite absentee voting location.” Deeth speculated the mandate would “be a burden to both auditors and state staff.”
  • Auditors could establish early voting sites only after receiving petitions from the public. According to Deeth, this passage “is aimed right at the People’s Republic” of Johnson County, where “We have a long and popular tradition of several regular sites, especially the public libraries and University Hospitals.”
  • Graduating students at all Iowa colleges would need to complete a form about where they plan to live. Those indicating they would move out of state would be marked “inactive” registered voters. Similar language in Smith’s first draft only targeted state university students; the amendment also applied to those enrolled at community colleges and private schools.
  • Auditors would be able to reject absentee ballots if “it appears to the commissioner that the signature on the [affidavit] envelope has been signed by someone other than the registered voter, in comparing the signature on the envelope to the signature on record of the registered voter named on the envelope.”
  • The poll closing time would move to 8:00 pm for state and federal elections.
  • The county seal would replace the county auditor’s signature on ballots, and auditors would not be allowed to “participate in an absentee ballot drive or collection effort” of a candidate or political party.
  • Election officials would not be allowed to use a database to look up voter information missing from an absentee ballot request. Republicans incorporated similar language in the 2017 voter ID law. Earlier this year, a Polk County District Court struck down that part of the law as “irrational, illogical, and wholly unjustifiable.”
  • The House language on absentee ballot barcodes would remain in effect only through the 2022 elections. After that, no absentee ballots arriving after polls closed on election day would be counted, even if marks on the envelope proved the voter mailed the ballot on time.
  • A new section would forbid auditors from mass-mailing sample ballots. After Linn County’s auditor sent out such a mailing in 2018, hundreds of confused voters returned the sample, thinking it was a valid absentee ballot.
  • Some years, auditors would have less time to mail out absentee ballots. Deeth explained, “If the first day to mail ballots 29 days before an election falls on a Monday postal holiday, the ballots can’t get mailed till Tuesday. This happens with Columbus Day 3 out of 7 November election years.”
  • The deadline for pre-registering would move from ten to eleven days before an election. Being pre-registered increases the chance things will go smoothly for Iowans who vote in person on election day. This section would not change current rules on election-day registration.
  • New rules regarding valid signatures on petitions to qualify for the ballot were inspired by controversies from a 2012 Democratic primary and 2018 campaigns for U.S. House and governor.
  • Candidates would need to collect far more signatures to qualify for the ballot, an apparent effort to reduce the number of third-party or independent candidates seeking office.
  • Auditors would be instructed to put all voters who missed a presidential election on “inactive” status, along with those who didn’t return a mailing.
  • Language removing the Secretary of State’s responsibility for publishing proposed constitutional amendments remained.
  • The amendment restated Smith’s preferred definition of “self-promotion,” designed to stop State Treasurer Fitzgerald from putting his name on mailings to Iowans participating in college savings plans.
  • Side note: I noticed that the “self-promotion” part of Smith’s amendment included a curious new sentence: “For the purposes of this section, only moneys appropriated to the offices of the governor and lieutenant governor are considered under the control of the governor or lieutenant governor.” What was that about?

    I learned this loophole would have allowed Reynolds and Lieutenant Governor Adam Gregg’s names and likenesses to continue to appear on the annual report mailed to some 350,000 members of Iowa’s leading public pension system, IPERS. (See the most recent example.) Add this data point to the overwhelming evidence that Smith only has a problem with taxpayer resources boosting the name ID of Democratic office-holders. Related: the “self-promotion” language enacted in 2018 did not apply to road maps bearing the governor’s photo or stickers naming the Republican secretary of agriculture on every Iowa gasoline pump.

    The Senate State Government Committee recommended replacing House File 692 with Smith’s amendment mostly along party lines on April 4.


    Whether the Senate would act on the revised election bill was an open question. Remember, leaders chose not to bring Smith’s earlier brainchild to the floor. House File 692 landed on the Senate’s “unfinished business” calendar on April 11. Many bills never see the light of day after that.

    However, the Senate did call up the bill on April 17 (beginning around 6:27:00 on the official video). Smith characterized his bill as the product of “numerous hours” of careful deliberations. “Yes, this amendment is lengthy, but that does not make it bad policy.” He denied any intention to suppress votes or disenfranchise voters.

    Jochum offered an amendment to strike most of the amendment, restoring only the language that had cleared the House unanimously. Senators voted that down, with Republican Tim Kapucian joining Democrats. Senators then rejected three amendments offered by Democratic Senator Claire Celsi.

    Smith introduced a new version of his amendment, removing the section that would have increased signature collection requirements for various state, federal, and local offices. Senators approved the amendment by voice vote, then passed the bill along party lines, by 31 votes to 19.


    I reached out to key House Republicans soon after the Senate sent the bill back to the lower chamber. Would House members let the measure die, scale it back to its original focus on postmarks for absentee ballots, or approve the 50-plus page version Smith had crafted?

    House State Government Committee chair Bobby Kaufmann deferred to House File 692’s floor manager Jacobsen, who responded via e-mail on April 18,

    My evaluation will be comprised of three guiding principles: 1) Every citizen has the right to vote; 2) Every citizen has to know how and when and where to vote; and 3) How these votes are counted must be addressed. Every citizen’s vote must be counted.

    These principles must be addressed: planks incompatible with these principles will be deemed to be highly problematic. Planks compatible with these principles will be considered.

    I am concerned that proper due diligence vetting will be more challenging, as the Legislature is only a week away from Sine Die. [adjourning for the year]

    I grew more hopeful when the House approved a stand-alone bill on April 22 to transfer responsibility for publishing constitutional amendments away from the Secretary of State’s office. That legislation would have been unnecessary if House leaders planned to adopt Smith’s amended House File 692.

    Kaufmann introduced a new amendment on April 25. Over 28 pages, his proposal incorporated the technical changes sought by the Secretary of State’s office and provisions to add mail barcodes to all absentee ballot envelopes, with no sunset date.

    All of the worst voter suppression plans were gone: no new limits on satellite voting locations, no earlier poll closing times, no new signature verification, no forms for graduating college students to sign, nothing to speed up the process of invalidating voter registrations. Kaufmann’s amendment retained a couple of Smith’s ideas: removing county auditors’ signatures from ballots and revoking their authority to determine candidate order on ballots. Multiple sources described that decision as “throwing Smith a bone.”

    One new code section added the underlined language to prevent double participation by Iowans who might call in to the Democratic Party’s “virtual caucus” and then attempt to caucus in person on February 3, 2020.

    Any person voting at a precinct caucus must be a person who is or will by the date of the next general election become an eligible elector, who has not already participated in the caucus of any political party within the same year, and who is a resident of the precinct.

    The House considered the election bill on April 25; debate begins at the 3:32:15 mark of this video. Presenting his amendment, Kaufmann hailed the compromise and credited several Democrats for working on the bill. In particular, he praised the unity among Democrats and Republicans “in maintaining the integrity of the Iowa caucuses by ensuring that the new virtual voting rules in the Democratic caucus are having good rules placed around them.”

    Democratic State Representative Bruce Hunter, who helped draft the initial version of House File 692, also praised the teamwork, as did Jacobsen. House members approved Kaufmann’s amendment by voice vote and passed the compromise bill by 98 votes to 0.

    Smith didn’t look happy later the the same day, when he presented the amended bill in the Senate (at 5:15:30 of the video). But he did ask for a yes vote, and his colleagues complied, sending House File 692 to the governor by 50 votes to 0. Here’s the final version:

    While there was no public indication Reynolds disagreed with any aspect of the election bill, I became a bit concerned as weeks passed with no action from the governor. (She had never called on lawmakers to fix the absentee ballot barcode problem following the House district 55 election controversy.) However, House File 692 finally became law on May 16. Reynolds didn’t hold a signing ceremony to celebrate bipartisan work to enfranchise Iowans who vote by mail and protect the integrity of the Iowa caucuses. The news was buried in a press release about fourteen bills signed the same day.

    Adding postal codes to all absentee ballot envelopes won’t undo the damage from the 2017 bill. Thousands of citizens may be turned away from the polls in November 2020 for lack of a voter ID, for instance. But House Republicans resisted the Senate’s push to compound the damage with more obstacles for eligible voters. And in future elections, auditors will count thousands of legally cast absentee ballots that would have been rejected in the past for arriving late with no postmark. That doesn’t excuse the unfair and arguably unlawful way the GOP handled the House district 55 contest, but it should prevent other Iowans from suffering the fate of 29 Winneshiek County voters who might have swung that election result, if their ballots had been tallied.

    Iowans should remain vigilant: Smith and his Senate GOP enablers will probably try to smuggle more burdens on voting into bills next year. Here’s hoping House Republicans stay committed to the guiding principles Jacobsen expressed.

    UPDATE: Joseph Howe, state party chair of the Libertarian Party of Iowa, commented that Libertarians and the Green Party are considering legal action, since House File 692 moves the filing deadline for independents and third party candidates up from August to March. Howe added, “we believe this is an unconstitutional hurdle to our candidates and will have a chilling effect on the number of independent candidates on the ballot.” The relevant language is on page 11 of the final version.

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