GOP lawmakers defeat new proposal to allow secretary of state to distribute ballot request forms

The state has not tried to stop the Linn County auditor from mailing absentee ballot request forms pre-printed with a voter ID number. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

A panel of state lawmakers turned down a Democratic proposal Wednesday to allow the Iowa secretary of state to send out absentee ballot request forms to all Iowa voters for the November general election.

The Legislative Council was meeting to consider a request from the secretary of state to approve an emergency order to allow uniformed military and overseas Iowa voters to cast a ballot electronically for seven special elections to be held July 7. That proposal passed unanimously.

Under legislation signed into law last week, the 24-member panel has to approve any emergency changes in the conduct of elections.  Democrats opposed the Republican-proposed legislation, calling it voter suppression.  The measure to allow changes with legislative council approval was a bipartisan compromise.

Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, proposed allowing the Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, to use federal CARES Act money send out absentee ballot request forms before the November election. Pate exercised emergency powers to send out request forms before the June 2 primary, which was widely hailed as a successful election with record participation despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t think we should put people in a position to choose between their health and exercising their their right to cast a vote,” Jochum said, noting the spikes of COVID-19 around the nation and in some places in Iowa.

The council turned down the proposal on a party-line vote, with 13 Republicans voting no and 9 Democrats voting yes.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said Pate has not asked to distribute ballot request forms. He also suggested such a request might not be favorably received. He said county auditors could still send out absentee ballot request forms countywide and questioned why two government entities should be sending out forms for the same election. Political parties, presidential candidates and others also may distribute ballot request forms.

Voters can download an absentee ballot request form online. They must hand-deliver or mail it to the county auditor’s office to receive a ballot. July 6 is the first day to request an absentee ballot for the Nov. 3 election.

“So I think there’s a lot of scare tactics going on, like the legislature is preventing people from voting absentee, that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Whitver said.

He said Republicans were concerned that emergency powers could be used to change election rules at the last minute.

“I think the most important thing, the most important message of any of the election laws that we’re doing, it should be safe, it should be reliable and it should be predictable. Now that’s what we’re trying to do with the emergency powers is make sure that this is a predictable election. And Joe Biden should want that. Donald Trump should want that. We need to know the rules of the election today, not have them change in September, October,” Whitver said.

However, Whitver and Republicans on the council opted to deal with more emergency orders for special elections on a case-by-case basis.

Representatives of the secretary of state’s office said there are more than a half-dozen more special elections scheduled in the next few months and more may be scheduled. They said they intend to come back to the legislative council each time with the same emergency order proposal for military and overseas voters if international mail is still being affected by the pandemic.

Sen. Janet Petersen suggested Republicans consider a blanket approval for all the special elections. But she did not push for a vote on the idea and Whitver didn’t take it up.  “My understanding is we may turn the Legislative Council into a babysitting club for the secretary of state at the rate we’re going,” Petersen said.

The legislative council has the authority to make some decisions on the Legislature’s behalf when the full body is not in session. The 2020 legislative session ended June 14.