Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes ofwebsite accessibilityNew elections laws could hinder mail-in voting process for some Iowans | KHQA
Close Alert

New elections laws could hinder mail-in voting process for some Iowans

FILE: A postal tray filled with absentee ballots sits at the Otsego City Hall on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. Michigan residents were encouraged to vote by absentee ballot for the May 5 election due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (WWMT/Sarah White)
FILE: A postal tray filled with absentee ballots sits at the Otsego City Hall on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. Michigan residents were encouraged to vote by absentee ballot for the May 5 election due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (WWMT/Sarah White)
Facebook Share IconTwitter Share IconEmail Share Icon
Comment bubble

The Iowa Legislature made some changes to state elections law this year, putting some new policies in place that could hinder the process of voting by mail, which many Iowa voters did during the June primary.

That primary shattered turn out records. 80% of voters cast ballots by mail, a process made easier by Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate sending mail-in ballot request forms to every registered voter in an effort to encourage absentee voting because of pandemic concerns at the polls.

Before the legislature adjourned in mid-June, days after the primary was widely touted as a success, Republicans introduced measures to curb Pate's emergency powers as the chief elections official to make changes to the voting process during a public health disaster happening in Iowa and across the world.

Republicans argued the secretary of state should have checks on his powers and said making changes would ensure safe elections by limiting voter fraud, despite no evidence of widespread election misconduct. 23 Iowans were convicted of voter fraud in the five years prior to the 2017 passage of the contentious Voter ID according to a Cedar Rapids Gazette report.

"[With the] secretary of state, we have no checks and balances," said Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, during debate. "Today you like what he did but a future secretary of state may do something you don’t like."

Democrats said Republicans' efforts are thinly veiled attempts to suppress the vote.

The Iowa Senate GOP introduced a proposal that would've outright barred the secretary of state from sending absentee ballot requests to all registered voters.

But where the legislature landed was with a bipartisan House amendment that allows the secretary of state to make changes to election procedures, including sending absentee ballot applications to all registered voters, if he gets the approval from the 24-member Legislative Council.

That new law got its first test during a council meeting by phone Wednesday, when Pate requested some changes to make it easier for Iowans serving overseas to vote in a special election next week.

Officials with Pate’s office told lawmakers there are seven to eight more special elections before November, so the group will likely have to convene several more times to approve changes.

“My understanding is that we’ll turn the Legislative Council into a babysitting club for the secretary of state at the rate we’re going," said Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines.

Sen. Jack Whitver, the Republican leader from Ankeny, on that same call said Democrats' claims that putting curbing the secretary of state's emergency powers will limit absentee voting is a "scare tactic." He said having the top elections commissioner check-in with lawmakers will make elections "safe, reliable and predictable."

The law limiting the secretary of state's power to send widespread mail-in ballot requests without approval of state lawmakers does not preclude county auditors for doing this in their specific counties.

'This is going to be a problem'

On the final day of session, Republican lawmakers tacked on an amendment to a budget bill that would make more changes to the process, this time in a way local elections officials say will hinder the process of voting by mail for some Iowans.

Under the old law, if an absentee ballot application had incorrect or incomplete information, county auditors could add and update it “by the best means available," which often times was by checking their voting database.

Now under the new law they are barred from doing that. They have to contact voters by e-mail, phone or by mail to correct discrepancies.

Linn County Auditor Joel Miller in an interview said practically, most people will need to be contacted by mail since his office doesn't have the email and phone numbers of many registered voters in his county.

“This is going to be a problem," said Miller. “What the default here is saying is we’re going to need to contact anyone who has an error on that absent ballot request form—we’re going to have to do it by mail. Now you’re adding a few days to the process.”

Out of the 155,000 registered voters in the county, the auditor's office only has 9,000 emails and 56,000 phone numbers. A lot of people choose not to provide this information since doing so makes it a public record, and Miller said auditors often times discourage Iowan voters from sharing it.

He contends the changes to the law are problematic and will create unneeded barriers. The Iowa Association of County Auditors, the League of Women Voters and AARP in Iowa also opposed the bill.

“The law is fixing something that isn’t broken," Miller said.

Miller said he is sending out emails to all of those on file to confirm that those addresses are correct and said that the office planned in its budget to send out absentee ballot applications to all active voters, which he said total about 145,000.

Comment bubble

Both of these laws are in effect. 82.5% of Iowa Democrats and 71.6% of Iowa Republicans voted absentee for the June primary, according to the Iowa Secretary of State's office.

Loading ...