Key lawmaker leaves door open to changes in Iowa election laws

The Polk County Election Office provided stickers to early voters on Oct. 5, 2020. (Photo By Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

A top Iowa legislative leader on Thursday said lawmakers could move to “tighten” Iowa’s election laws. 

“I  think there are people that want to continue to tighten up election law,” said Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny. “Both parties over the last couple years have been questioning results of elections and that cannot happen in America. We have to have elections that people believe in and we want to continue to make them secure.” Whitver spoke at a meeting of legislative leaders and reporters arranged by the Iowa Capitol Press Association.

Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny

Whitver said previous changes in election laws that have included ID requirements and limits on how county officials can send out absentee ballots have worked. He said Iowans in general trust election laws.

But those changes were controversial, bringing accusations of voter suppression from Democrats. And errors in several counties’ vote tabulations in the 2nd Congressional District — where Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks was certified as the winner but Democrat Rita Hart has appealed — led to more discussion about reviewing election laws. 

Nationally, tensions over allegations of voter fraud in the November election led to a riot at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump on Wednesday. Four people died in violence that included a mass break-in at the Capitol as Congress prepared to certify Democrat Joe Biden’s election win.

“I think if anything, the 2020 election taught us is election law matters, and having safe, secure elections that Iowans believe in,” Whitver said. “I believe the measures that we have put in place have led to safe, secure, predictable elections, and all the talk about how this was voter suppression is nonsense. We’ve had higher turnout in this election than we’ve ever had. And that’s a good thing.”

Whitver said lawmakers will consider changes to ensure counties are enforcing the same rules. “We can’t have separate mechanisms in different counties and we can’t have lawsuits going into September to determine what our election laws are, so clarifying that would be important,” Whitver said.

State Sen. Zach Wahls is a Democrat from Coralville. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Senate)

The 2nd Congressional District election has prompted some to suggest new rules on recounts, Whitver said. “If there is something that needs to be done there, we will certainly look into that. But anything we can do to make elections more secure, and have more integrity, we’re going to look at it.” 

Sen. Zach Wahls of Coralville, the Democratic leader, said the state needs to ensure the elections’ integrity. “I think the most important thing that Democrats and Republicans should agree on is that we need to count every single legally cast vote,” Wahls said. 

In the 2nd District race, “we ran out of time to count every vote, under the current process and Iowa law,” Wahls said. “So folks are serious about fixing this problem. I think there have been bipartisan fixes to election law in the past.”

Hart contends there were more than enough legally cast, uncounted ballots to make her the winner of the race. Miller-Meeks was sworn in this week, pending the appeal. 

State Rep. Pat Grassley is a Republican from New Hartford. (Photo via the Iowa Legislature)

Wahls said he does not think there is widespread concern about voter fraud in Iowa. However, he added that there is concern over making sure the redistricting process this year doesn’t favor one party or another. 

Wahls said there is a loophole in Iowa’s nonpartisan redistricting law that would allow the Republican majority to change district lines if the first two proposed maps were rejected. 

“The Legislature and Republicans would be allowed to amend the lines on the map and to potentially gerrymander our state,” Wahls said. “Politicians picking new voters, without technically changing the process that is on the books … obviously, that would be a great concern,” he added.

States are required to draw new district lines for legislative offices and Congress every 10 years, after the new census. Iowa’s process uses nonpartisan staff to draw the proposed maps; lawmakers must accept or reject the maps without changes. If the first two maps are rejected, however, the Legislature can amend the third proposal.

Wahls asked if House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, and Whitver would commit to using the nonpartisan maps and avoiding the loophole. 

Whitver noted the Iowa law on redistricting is respected nationwide. “If it’s highly respected, I don’t know why we change it … I think it’s a ludicrous question to even ask leadership,” Whitver responded.

Grassley also refused to commit to accepting a redistricting plan that has not been written yet.