Iowa Senate Republican seeks to suppress voting by mail

Iowa’s 2020 primary turnout hit a new record, thanks largely to Secretary of State Paul Pate’s actions to facilitate more voting by mail.

Days later, Senate State Government Committee Chair Roby Smith introduced an amendment that would prevent Pate from taking the same steps during the general election. County auditors from both parties oppose the proposal.

Nearly 525,000 Iowans cast ballots in the June 2 Democratic or Republican primaries, unofficial results show, “shattering” the previous record of 449,490 ballots cast in the June 1994 primary. At least 396,000 of this year’s primary voters used absentee ballots.

In response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Pate used the emergency powers of his office to make two important decisions. First, he expanded the early voting window to 40 days. Republicans had shortened Iowa’s early voting period from 40 days to 29 under a 2017 law Smith championed, which also sought to suppress voting through new ID and signature verification requirements.

Second, Pate mailed an absentee ballot request form to every Iowa voter, leading thousands who had not previously participated in a primary election to vote by mail this spring.

Smith drafted his 30-page amendment to replace the text of House File 2486, an uncontroversial bill related to printing the county seal on ballots. House members approved that bill unanimously in March, and it was referred to Smith’s committee shortly before the legislature suspended operations due to COVID-19.

A lot is going on in the amendment, but here are some of the significant points:

  • Section 2 would allow the state legislature or the Legislative Council (now controlled by Republicans) to “rescind an emergency declaratory order” by a state official.
  • Section 22 would forbid the secretary of state from mailing absentee ballot request forms or absentee ballots to any voter who had not already requested one.
  • Section 7 would amend Iowa Code to prevent county election officials from using databases to fill in missing information from an absentee ballot request form. Current law instructs officials to use the “best means available.” A Polk County District Court determined in early 2019 that it was “irrational, illogical, and wholly unjustifiable” for an administrative rule issued by Pate to bar county auditors from looking up voter details in the database.
  • Writing on behalf of the Iowa State Association of County Auditors on June 5, Scott County Auditor Roxana Moritz said county auditors “are baffled” by the proposal.

    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?

    Secretary Pate and his staff provided great leadership and assistance to counties to deal with the hazards of the COVID-19 pandemic in the conduct of an election. One of the most critical aspects of their assistance was to provide voters with absentee ballot request forms, making it easier to vote from home at a time when Governor Reynolds was counseling Iowans to leave their homes only when absolutely necessary. The large absentee turnout had the unexpected benefit of relieving many voters of making the decision whether or not to go to the polls in a time of civil unrest in their communities.

    These voters come from all political persuasions. The ballots are processed, safeguarded, and counted by members of both major political parties. This is a health and safety issue, not a political issue.

    Moritz urged lawmakers to reject House File 2486, “not just in response to the concerns of county auditors, but out of respect to the hundreds of thousands of Iowa voters who just exercised their rights in the most basic act of democratic government, without having to choose between their rights and their health.”

    Jamie Cashman, government relations manager for the Iowa State Association of Counties, emailed the county auditors’ letter to all members of the Senate State Government Committee on June 5, noting in his message that Iowa local and state officials “believe now is not the time to make significant changes to the conduct of elections.”

    I’ll update this post as needed with Senate developments. I’m also seeking comment from Iowa House State Government Committee Bobby Kaufmann and State Representative Jon Jacobsen. Those House Republicans were instrumental in removing harmful proposals from a wide-ranging election bill Smith proposed and the Senate approved during the 2019 legislative session.

    UPDATE: Longtime Johnson County elections office worker John Deeth commented,

    There’s also a voter caging section to the bill:

    Under current law, we send reminder notices to voters who haven’t voted or updated registration in four years. Their voter status is not changed from Active unless the post office returns the card as undeliverable.

    This bill makes us send notices to anyone who misses ONE general election, AND it requires us to make the voters Inactive even before we send the cards! That would inactivate hundreds of thousands of presidential election only voters.

    That language is in Section 38 of the amendment. Deeth later explained that moving voters to inactive status is the first step toward canceling their registrations.

    SECOND UPDATE: Democratic State Senator Claire Celsi flagged several other troubling provisions.

  • Section 4 blocks county auditors from reducing polling places by more than 35 percent in the event of an emergency, and prevents the secretary of state from changing the methods for conducting any election in which federal offices are on the ballot.
  • Section 10 requires voters to provide a voter ID in order to cast an early ballot.
  • Sections 26 and 27 impose new requirements on presidential electors which, in Celsi’s words, would strip them of their First Amendment rights.
  • Section 34 would greatly increase the signature requirements for candidates wanting to run for office as independents or representatives of third parties.
  • THIRD UPDATE: Late in the evening on June 5, the Senate State Government Committee approved this bill on a party-line vote.

    Appendix 1: Full text of amendment proposed by Iowa Senate State Government Committee Chair Roby Smith

    Appendix 2: June 5, 2020 letter from Iowa County Auditors

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