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Iowa Legislature sends bill shortening early and Election Day voting to Gov. Kim Reynolds' desk

Des Moines Register logo Des Moines Register 2/25/2021 Stephen Gruber-Miller, Des Moines Register
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Iowans would have less time to cast ballots either early or on Election Day under a bill headed to Gov. Kim Reynolds' desk.

After a five-hour debate, the Iowa House passed the bill on a vote of 57-37 Wednesday night. The House vote came a day after the Senate passed the measure on a party-line vote.

Reynolds, a Republican, is expected to sign the measure. Her spokesperson, Pat Garrett, pointed to the governor's comments at a news conference last week in which she suggested she would be willing to shorten the early voting period.

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If the legislation is signed into law, Iowans would have 20 days of early voting, down from 29 under current law. Polls would close at 8 p.m. for all elections, instead of the current 9 p.m. cutoff for primary and general elections.

Absentee ballots would have to arrive by poll close in order to be counted, rather than counting as long as they were placed in the mail the day before Election Day. And county auditors could face criminal charges for disobeying state law or failing to follow state guidance.

Republicans said the bill will ensure election integrity and create uniform election practices across the state.

Democrats described the bill as "voter suppression" and accused Republicans of acting based on false claims of voter fraud. For five hours, they pleaded with Republicans to vote the bill down.

"Why are we doing this in Iowa?" said Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City. "We had no fraud. We had a record turnout. People were happy with the way they got to vote absentee — a million people. And you better believe some of those people were Republicans, because you won."

There is no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election, despite claims to the contrary from many prominent Republicans, including former President Donald Trump.

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, who led the passage of the bill in the House, said he believes Iowa's 2020 election was successful and that it wasn't rife with fraud. Rather, he said, the bill is about looking at what did and didn't work and improving.

"I heard time and time again in dozens of prepared remarks that this bill was derived from fraud," he said in his closing comments. "Fraud. Fraud. Fraud. So I apologize for ruining your prepared remarks by emphatically stating in the beginning of this debate — in the first sentence that came out of my mouth — that this bill has nothing to do with fraud."

Bobby Kaufmann, Jake Chapman looking at a man in a suit and tie: State Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, left, walks through the Iowa Senate chamber, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa. Iowa Republicans were moving swiftly Wednesday to sharply limit early voting in the state, months after a general election overseen by a Republican secretary of state resulted in record turnout and overwhelming victories by GOP candidates. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) © Charlie Neibergall, AP State Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, left, walks through the Iowa Senate chamber, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa. Iowa Republicans were moving swiftly Wednesday to sharply limit early voting in the state, months after a general election overseen by a Republican secretary of state resulted in record turnout and overwhelming victories by GOP candidates. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

More than 1.7 million Iowans cast ballots in last year's election — nearly 76% of registered voters. That included more than 1 million people who voted early, either by mail or in person. Both those figures broke state records.

According to data from the Iowa Secretary of State, 76% of Democrats and 52% of Republicans voted early in the 2020 election, either by mail or in person.

Republicans, who maintained full control of Iowa's state government, have pointed to the record turnout to say that their previous changes to election law didn't suppress votes and that this bill wouldn't either. But Democrats argue that the new legislation would restrict many of the practices that made the 2020 election so successful.

"I’ve got news for you. There were record votes in 2020 in spite of what the Republicans did, not because of what the Republicans did," said Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines.

'Are voters asking for one less hour to vote?'

Democrats criticized Republicans repeatedly during Wednesday's debate for reducing the time to vote early and on Election Day.

"Are voters asking for one less hour to vote?" said Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights. "I haven’t heard a good reason that errs on the side of voting freedoms that would indicate any need to shorten the voting period by an hour."

Kaufmann said county auditors have asked for the earlier poll close time and said it brings Iowa's general elections in line with city and school elections, when polls close at 8 p.m. He also said Iowans will still have plenty of time to vote early.

"It is really easy to vote absentee and early before this legislation," he said. "It’s going to remain really easy to vote after this legislation is signed into law. This bill protects Iowans’ right to vote and it adds certainty and security to it. This bill does not suppress one single vote."

Democrats said if absentee ballots had been required to be returned by the close of polls in 2020, about 6,500 Iowans' ballots wouldn't have counted.

"The voter voted before Election Day," Konfrst said. "It’s not their choice whether or not their vote is counted. Iowans’ freedom to vote shouldn’t be dependent on whether or not a ballot cast on Monday arrives at the auditor’s office on Tuesday."

Kaufmann said he trusts Iowans to make voting plans that ensure their ballots are counted.

"You can’t show up to the polls 10 minutes after they close and demand to vote, so your absentee vote should also be in when the polls close," he said.

It wasn't until after House lawmakers had held a public hearing on the legislation and the bill had gone through the committee process that Republicans amended the bill to close polls an hour earlier on Election Day and to institute the hard deadline for auditors to receive absentee ballots by the time the polls close.

Democrats were surprised by the additional restrictions, because Republican legislators had said their amendment would focus on concerns raised about making sure overseas and military voters, survivors of domestic violence and hospitalized Iowans would have their absentee ballots counted.

Republicans target auditors who 'brazenly broke the law'

The measure also takes aim at county auditors, stripping them of their home rule authority to conduct elections and requiring them to follow guidance from the Iowa secretary of state.

Failure to obey the secretary of state could result in felony charges being brought against an auditor. And an auditor or other election official could face a fine of up to $10,000 for a technical infraction of state election law or failure to follow guidance from the secretary of state.

The law would also rein in many practices election officials implemented last year as they sought to make absentee voting easier during the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year, several county auditors mailed absentee ballot request forms to all registered voters in their counties. Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate also sent out a statewide mailing. The bill would prohibit that practice. Auditors would be required to wait for a voter to ask for a form and the secretary of state could only send ballot request forms to voters with legislative permission during a health emergency.

Kaufmann said he believes "95% of our auditors did a tremendous job" in 2020 but that "a few brazenly broke the law," referring to three auditors who sent absentee ballot request forms to voters with the voters' information already filled in. Former President Donald Trump's campaign and several Republican groups successfully sued to invalidate those requests.

Rep. Steve Hansen, D-Sioux City, praised one of the three auditors Kaufmann targeted. Woodbury County Auditor Pat Gill was trying to make it easier to vote, Hansen said.

"Brazen? You’re right," Hansen said. "He brazenly tried to increase voters, voter participation. And I give him kudos. You want to sue him. You want to make it a class D felony. Good God."

How does Iowa stack up to other states?

According to data from the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, 43 states offer some form of early voting and the average starting time for early voting periods is 22 days before the election. If the bill debated Wednesday becomes law, Iowans would have 20 days.

Iowans have 14 hours to vote on Election Day under current law. That's more than every neighboring state, according to 2020 data compiled by USA Today. Shortening Election Day voting by an hour would leave Iowa even with four of its neighbors: Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri and Minnesota.

Wendy Underhill, NCSL's director of elections and redistricting, said states around the country are taking a new look at absentee and mail voting. The legislation generally takes one of three forms, she said: Limiting absentee or mail voting, making the process easier or fine tuning the process. She said the wave of interest in mail voting comes after several years of legislation around the country focused on voter registration and identification laws.

"In the last several years, let’s say 2016, '17, '18, '19, voter registration was where most of the legislation was," Underhill said. "And in 2020 and 2021 it’s sort of shifting over to this really locking down what do we mean by absentee and mail voting."

Iowa passed its own voter ID law in 2017, the first year after Republicans seized full control of state government. That law also shortened Iowa's early voting period from 40 days to 29.

Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at sgrubermil@registermedia.com or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Iowa Legislature sends bill shortening early and Election Day voting to Gov. Kim Reynolds' desk

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