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Iowa Senate passes bill prohibiting secretary of state from automatically mailing absentee ballot request forms

Des Moines Register logo Des Moines Register 6/11/2020 Ian Richardson, Des Moines Register
a clock tower in the middle of a forest: Outside the Iowa State Capitol on Monday, April 22, 2019, in Des Moines. © Kelsey Kremer/The Register Outside the Iowa State Capitol on Monday, April 22, 2019, in Des Moines.

After more than two hours of emotional debate Wednesday, Iowa Senate Republicans passed a wide-ranging election bill that would prohibit the secretary of state from mailing absentee ballot request forms without first receiving a request from a voter.

Senate Democrats claimed if it became law, the measure would suppress votes and rig the 2020 general election.

The measure would limit the ability of election officials to take some of the same steps they took during the record-setting June 2 primary.

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"If the only way we can win an election is by rigging it, then God help us," said Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque. "This is nothing more than trying to rig an election."

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, mailed request forms to all registered voters ahead of the June 2 primary, which saw record turnout, with more than 80% of the vote from absentee ballots.

"(With the) secretary of state, we have no checks and balances," Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, said. "And I know today you like what he did. A future secretary of state, in the future, may do something you don't like."

Shrugging off criticism that they are attempting to diminish voter turnout during a pandemic, Republicans said other provisions in the bill will increase turnout and make elections more secure.

The bill passed the Iowa Senate by a 30-19 vote with two Republicans, Tim Kapucian of Keystone and Mark Lofgren of Muscatine, joining Democrats in the dissent. It will now head to the House.

Thursday night, Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Muscatine, and Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines, filed a bipartisan amendment to the bill that would modify the prohibition on automatically mailing ballot request forms. 

Instead of an outright ban, the amendment would require the secretary of state to seek approval from the Legislative Council — a group of lawmakers made up of leadership and long-serving members of both parties in the House and Senate — before changing election procedures. The Legislative Council could approve the secretary of state's plan, propose an alternative or decline to take action. 

The amendment would still prevent more than 35% of a county's polling places from closing.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has not yet indicated whether she supports the legislation. Asked about it during her Wednesday morning news conference, Reynolds called Pate's actions during the primary "fine" but declined to comment on the bill itself.

"My goal was to protect Iowa voters and poll workers while finding ways to conduct a clean and fair election," Pate, a Republican, said in a statement sent to the Des Moines Register last week. "… I stand by my decisions."

Senate Republicans drafted the legislation after returning from a two-and-a-half-month hiatus due to the spreading coronavirus. The 30-page amendment was added late Friday night to an existing one-page bill, House File 2338, that originally dealt with county seals and their placement on ballots. The House had unanimously passed the original bill in February.

Along with limiting the secretary of state's power to mail out ballot request forms, the bill would prohibit county auditors from decreasing the number of polling places by more than 35%, which some Iowa county officials did during the pandemic-rattled primary.


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Smith said that was one of many ways he believes the measure would encourage more  Iowans to vote — by keeping polling locations closer to people's homes.

Smith said other provisions, such as one that would increase absentee ballot access for those in hospitals and assisted living facilities, and another that provides a six-day extension to voters who forget to sign their absentee ballots, would encourage more voting. The latter change would have helped more than 2,600 people who failed to sign their ballots in the 2018 election, he said.

"Not a single soul in Iowa will miss a vote because of this legislation," Smith said. "The tool for absentee balloting is still there. Every single person in Iowa can vote absentee if they'd like."

Smith said the bill will also tighten up Iowa's law requiring voters to show identification at the polls, passed in 2017, by requiring identification verification on absentee ballots.

He held up news articles from the past decade that showed a handful of suspected cases of absentee voting fraud in Iowa during previous elections, including nearly two dozen in the 2018 election.

"It happens. I have it right here," he said. National and state studies have shown voter fraud is very rare.

The measure is advancing a few weeks after President Donald Trump criticized the state of Michigan and threatened to withhold federal funds after state officials automatically sent out absentee ballot request forms to registered voters. Many other states, like Iowa, took similar actions.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, noted that both Trump and Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst would be on the ballot in the fall.

"It seems like, geez, we're trying to help them out some way by suppressing the vote," he said. "Why are we doing this? Why are you guys trying to make it harder for people who just found out how convenient, how safe it is to vote absentee?"

Democrats repeatedly voiced concerns about the bill during Wednesday's debate. Of the 17 Democrats present in the Senate chamber Wednesday, a dozen took the opportunity to speak. Several said that while they don't always agree with Pate's decisions, he had handled the primary well, and the bill would mess with a system that had worked.

"That is voter suppression," said Sen. Todd Taylor, D-Cedar Rapids.

Jochum, who was called out by Republicans for a point of order after accusing them of attempting to rig the election, offered an amendment to the bill that would have kept some of the other changes while eliminating some of the language surrounding the voter ID requirements and the limits on the secretary of state and county auditors. Her amendment was voted down.

Jochum and other Democrats said they fear the virus will still be active in November, possibly on its second wave.

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said if Republicans pass the new elections bill, he would personally knock on doors to connect people with absentee ballots.

"If you don't let Paul Pate use the mail, Rob Hogg will be at the door, risking the spread of coronavirus because Republicans put up new barriers to voting," he said.

Smith and Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, said they believe Democrats' arguments about voter suppression lack weight because they made similar arguments when the Iowa Legislature passed its voter ID law in 2017. The 2018 midterm election then set a record for turnout, they said.

"So in Iowa, in spite of the terrible bill that Sen. Smith brought to us, we had record turnout way above the national average, and so let's just keep that in mind," Garrett said. "And I suspect we may see that same thing happen this November."

Iowa's voter ID law was not fully rolled out during 2018's midterm elections. Poll workers asked voters to show ID, but voters were not required to have it to vote.

Hogg also credited Iowans with overcoming obstacles for the increased turnout.

Correction: A graphic showing the vote breakdown on the bill incorrectly identified how some lawmakers voted. Democratic senators Rich Taylor, Jim Lykam and Zach Wahls voted against the bill, and Republican senators Ken Rozenboom, Thomas Greene and Roby Smith voted for it. The graphic was removed from this story.

Ian Richardson covers the Iowa Statehouse for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at irichardson@registermedia.com, at 515-284-8254, or on Twitter at @DMRIanR.

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This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Iowa Senate passes bill prohibiting secretary of state from automatically mailing absentee ballot request forms

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