Iowa Republicans ready to back statewide absentee mailing—with a catch

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate kept quiet for weeks.

He said nothing in public as Republican lawmakers sought to stop him from taking steps that contributed to record-breaking turnout in Iowa’s primary election.

He said nothing when legislators agreed to allow him to exercise emergency powers over an election only with approval from the GOP-dominated Legislative Council.

He had no public comment when Governor Kim Reynolds signed that bill.

Nor did he react when Republicans on the Legislative Council voted down a Democratic motion to let the secretary of state send absentee ballot request forms to all registered Iowa voters before the November election.

Pate’s staff did not respond to journalists’ inquiries about whether he would attempt to send a universal absentee request mailing this fall.

The secretary of state finally broke his silence on July 16 with a written proposal to mail every active registered Iowa voter an absentee ballot request form. But that’s not all. Pate’s also seeking to stop county auditors from making it easier for their constituents to return complete and accurate requests for absentee ballots.

Republicans on the Legislative Council will surely approve Pate’s request when they meet on July 17. But it’s not clear the secretary of state has the legal authority to limit what county auditors send voters.

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Iowa SOS will need permission for future emergency election changes

Secretary of State Paul Pate will need approval from the Legislative Council in order to use his emergency powers to alter election procedures, under a bill Governor Kim Reynolds signed on June 25.

While Republicans have a majority on that legislative body, it’s not clear they would use that power to prevent Pate from repeating steps that led to record-breaking turnout for the June 2 primary.

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Racial disparities already apparent in Iowa's COVID-19 data

For the first time on April 14, the Iowa Department of Public Health released information about novel coronavirus (COVID-19) infections by race and ethnicity. The results won’t surprise anyone who has been following the news from other parts of the country: a disproportionate number of Iowans with confirmed COVID-19 infections are African American or Latino.

Activists and some Democratic legislators had pushed for releasing the demographic information after a senior official said last week the public health department had no plans to publish a racial breakdown of Iowa’s COVID-19 numbers.

Meanwhile, Iowa reported its largest daily number of new COVID-19 cases (189) on April 14, fueled by the outbreak that has temporarily shut down a Tyson pork processing plant in Columbus Junction (Louisa County). At her daily press conference, Governor Kim Reynolds again praised efforts by meatpacking companies to slow the spread of the virus and keep workers and the food supply chain safe. However, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) has highlighted unsafe workplace conditions for employees of meatpacking plants, a group that is disproportionately Latino.

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What took them so long?

Better late than never. Governor Kim Reynolds recommended on March 15 that Iowa schools close for four weeks to slow the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19). The same day, Republican legislative leaders announced the House and Senate will suspend operations for at least 30 days after meeting on March 16 “to consider resolutions regarding continuity of government to ensure delivery of essential services to Iowans.” Clerks and secretaries have been told they will be paid through April 21, but “March 16 will be your last day of employment.”

While several state legislatures around the country hit the pause button last week, Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley and Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver waited for recommendations from the governor or the Iowa Department of Public Health.

As recently as the late afternoon on March 13, Reynolds was assuring the public, “At this time, Iowa is not experiencing community spread of the virus.” Such a definitive statement was not warranted, given how few people had been tested for COVID-19.

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Highlights, dog whistles from an Iowa Senate debate

Matt Chapman closely follows Iowa legislative affairs, especially bills like the one discussed here. -promoted by Laura Belin

Iowa Senate Republicans have approved another bill targeting people receiving public assistance, such as Medicaid or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

Senate File 2272, which passed along party lines February 26, would require the state to contract for extra screening, looking for evidence of Iowans enrolled in more than one state. Labor and Business Relations Committee chair Jason Schultz introduced and floor-managed the bill. He has been attempting to pass versions of this legislation for years and sponsored five bills in a similar vein in 2019.

The vendor that would receive the contract, LexisNexis, does similar work in other states, often flagging 15 percent of beneficiaries as possibly fraudulent. In the five southern states that have adopted this screening, further checks have confirmed dual participation by just 0.1 percent to 0.2 percent of enrollees, on average.

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Who's who in the Iowa Senate for 2020

The Iowa Senate convened for its 2020 session on January 13 with 32 Republicans and 18 Democrats. Eleven senators are women (six Democrats and five Republicans), up from six women in the chamber before the 2018 elections.

I enclose below details on the majority and minority leadership teams, along with all chairs, vice chairs, and members of standing Iowa Senate committees. Where relevant, I’ve mentioned changes since last year’s legislative session. A few committees have new Republican leaders. On the Democratic side, Eric Giddens now represents the Senate district where Jeff Danielson resigned last year.

A few words about demographics: all current state senators are white. To my knowledge, the only African American ever to serve in the Iowa Senate was Tom Mann, elected to two terms during the 1980s. No Latino has ever served in the Iowa legislature; in 2014, Nathan Blake fell 18 votes short of becoming the first. No Asian American has served in the Iowa Senate since Swati Dandekar resigned in 2011.

Some non-political trivia: the 50 Iowa senators include two Smiths (a Democrat and a Republican) and two Taylors (both Democrats). As for first names, there are three Marks, three Zachs, and two men each named Dan, Jim, Tim, and Tom.

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