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.

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Divided Iowa Supreme Court upholds collective bargaining law

“Our role is to decide whether constitutional lines were crossed, not to sit as a superlegislature rethinking policy choices of the elected branches,” four Iowa Supreme Court justices said today in two rulings that upheld the 2017 collective bargaining law.

The state’s two largest public employee labor unions, AFSCME Council 61 and the Iowa State Education Association, had challenged the law, which eliminated almost all bargaining rights for most public employees but preserved more rights for units containing at least 30 percent “public safety” employees. The ISEA also challenged a provision that banned payroll deduction for union dues.

Justice Thomas Waterman wrote for the majority in both cases, joined by the court’s three other most conservative judges: Edward Mansfield, Susan Christensen, and Christopher McDonald. His ruling upheld two Polk County District Court rulings in 2017.

Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justice Brent Appel dissented from the AFSCME decision, joined by Justice David Wiggins. Appel wrote a partial concurrence and partial dissent in the ISEA case, joined by Cady and Wiggins. They would have allowed the state to end payroll deductions for union dues but struck down the part of the law that gave more bargaining rights to some workers than others. They highlighted the statute’s “illogical” classification system, under which many who receive the expanded privileges are not themselves “public safety employees,” while others “with obvious public safety responsibilities” are excluded.

Had the late Justice Daryl Hecht been able to consider this case, these decisions would likely have gone 4-3 the other way. However, Hecht stepped down while battling melanoma in December, shortly before the court heard oral arguments. Governor Kim Reynolds appointed McDonald to fill the vacancy in February. Normally new justices do not participate in rulings when they were not present for oral arguments, but the court would have been deadlocked on these cases otherwise. So file this disappointing outcome for some 180,000 public employees under E for “elections have consequences.”

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Four reasons the GOP attack on trans Iowans won't hold up in court

Republicans slipped a couple of nasty surprises into the health and human services budget on the penultimate day of the Iowa legislature’s 2019 session. One of the new provisions in House File 766 would amend the Iowa Civil Rights Act to deprive transgender and intersex Iowans of access to surgery through Medicaid or other public health insurance programs.

Governor Kim Reynolds should strike this language because denying health care to people in need is reprehensible.

If she lacks the empathy to comprehend why punching down on a marginalized group is wrong, the governor should use her item veto power for a pragmatic reason: the Iowa Supreme Court is unlikely to let this discriminatory act stand.

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