Senate passes limits on secretary of state’s power on absentee voting

A woman walks past a polling place sign. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

The Iowa Legislature on Wednesday moved a step closer to limiting the secretary of state’s ability to send out absentee ballots in an emergency, a move that led to record voting in the June 2 primary. 

The Iowa Senate, on a party-line vote, sent the heavily amended House File 2486 back to the House.

The House started with a short bill governing the use of county seals, and got back a 30-page amendment that sets rules for voter identification. The amended bill would allow the secretary of state to declare an emergency only within 21 days of an election. Pate declared an emergency due to the pandemic and sent every registered voter an application for an absentee ballot before the primary. 

The record primary turnout of more than 500,000 included 80% who voted by absentee ballot. 

The Senate version also would prevent the secretary of state from reducing the number of polling sites in a county by more than 35%.

Democrats called the move an effort to suppress voting. Republicans said the bill would increase voting, ensure security and prevent fraud. 

State Sen. Roby Smith is a Republican from Davenport. (Photo bhy the Iowa Legislature)

Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, took both his Democratic colleagues and reporters to task for what he considered a mischaracterization of the bill as an attempt to suppress voting. 

“This will expand absentee voting, more will count and the votes will be secure,” Smith said. “If we don’t pass this, one person can come in and declare whatever he or she wants. What you like today, you might not like later,” Smith told senators. 

Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, said as he listened to the “doom and gloom” from Democrats during the debate, he recalled similar complaints against previous voter identification legislation. But vote totals grew after those previous changes, including in Polk, Linn and Johnson counties, three of the state’s largest. 

Democrats opposed the bill.

A mask- and shield-wearing Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said he would go door-to-door encourage people to vote if the bill passes, risking coronavirus exposure. “You keep creating barriers to voting and we shall overcome,” Hogg said, raising his voice and forcefully moving his microphone away.  

Democrats found themselves praising the GOP secretary of state, Pate, for what they saw as a strong and needed attempt to get out the vote when people were being told to stay home due to the pandemic. 

Sen. Pam Jochum is a Democrat from Dubuque. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Senate)

“Don’t take it out on voters,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City. “If you don’t like Paul Pate, cut his budget. Find someone to run against him.”

Said Sen. Todd Taylor, D-Cedar Rapids, “You want to have a voter suppression bill but you don’t call it that. You call it a county seal bill and you put a non-germane amendment on it at 10:30 on a Friday night.”

Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, said the bill is “an insult” to county auditors who acted “respectfully and legally.”

Of Pate, Jochum said, “Why are we slapping him in the face with this amendment?”