Lawmakers consider bill to shorten absentee and early voting, prosecute election officials

Poll workers assist voters at the Westside Community Center in West Des Moines' Valley Junction neighborhood shortly after 8 a.m. Nov. 3, 2020. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Lawmakers in the House and Senate considered a proposal Wednesday that would give Iowans less time to request and return absentee ballots and would impose stricter penalties including potential incarceration on election officials who do not follow state guidelines.

“This bill creates uniform election procedures across all 99 counties, it clarifies enforcement and authority … (and) it continues to advance the integrity and security of Iowa elections,” said Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport.

In Wednesday meetings on the bills, members of the public, lobbyists and county auditors expressed concerns that the bill would make voting more difficult for Iowans while putting more pressure on overextended election officials. 

What would the bills do?

The two companion bills, Senate Study Bill 1199 and House Study Bill 213, propose several changes to Iowa’s election procedures. Here’s what some of the biggest changes would be under the current versions of the bills:

  • Absentee ballot requests may begin 70 days before an election, rather than 120 days before. For a November election, that means ballot requests could begin in mid-August.
  • Absentee ballots could be returned beginning 18 days before an election, rather than 29 days before.
  • Early in-person voting would begin 18 days before an election, rather than 29 days before.
  • County commissioners could only set up one drop box for absentee ballot drop-offs. That box would be located at the county commissioner’s office.
  • County commissioners may not send blank absentee ballot request forms to voters en masse without legislators’ permission. Several counties and the secretary of state’s office did this before November’s election due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Only some people may drop off someone else’s ballot. Neighbors, friends or other volunteers would not be allowed to bring a voter’s ballot to the drop box or county auditor’s office. Only immediate family or household members, caretakers or certain election officials may deliver a completed ballot.
  • Failure to follow election guidance could result in jail time. Election officials who do not follow election laws or who improperly complete their duties could face up to five years in jail and fines of up to $10,245, depending on the infraction. Individuals who drop off ballots wrongfully would also face legal penalties.

Both the House and Senate subcommittees voted to advance the bills Wednesday. The House will consider the bill in committee Thursday morning.

County auditors worried about penalties, lack of local control

Ryan Dokter, president of the Iowa State Association of County Auditors, worries the bills could give election officials less time to do more precise work, with higher stakes than ever.

“I’m understanding that the intent of (the bill) is to prevent any willful disregard for the law,” Dokter said. “But, in the way I read it, it scares me that, if there’s inadvertent omissions or just accidental mistakes, that then there’s going to be extremely harsh penalties in the form of fines or imprisonment.”

Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz concurred. She recalled two errors in 2020, both caused by human error the frazzled nerves of the pandemic and the exhaustion of high-turnout elections.

“The more overtime you cause your staff to work, the more likely it is that you’re going to make mistakes,” she said. “You’re setting us up to fail.”

Moritz and Dokter both noted that shorter windows to send and receive absentee ballots would require more money and resources to manage.

Representatives in a House subcommittee discussed at length whether willful misconduct and genuine accidents could be prosecuted to the same extent under the law under the proposed bill.

Ultimately, that decision may fall to the secretary of state, who would prosecute in a case of election misconduct. Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said this means minor errors committed by poll workers would not result in severe punishments.

“No secretary of state in their right mind would do that,” Kaufmann said. “And if they did, they’ve got due process to be able to have the courts laugh it out of the courts, which I think they would do.”

Auditors also expressed concerns that the bill would remove the ability to conduct elections differently based on their counties. The proposed bill would limit drop boxes to one per county, which could cause difficulties. It would also remove the ability for a county auditor to organize satellite caucuses without a petition from residents.

“Every county functions a little bit different, even if we’re under the same guidelines,” Moritz said.

Opponents say bill would limit accessibility

Opponents of the bill asked lawmakers to consider how the shorter absentee and early voting windows might affect accessibility for voters who are elderly or disabled, or those who work long hours or lack transportation.

“We believe we should be finding ways to expand voter participation in safe and accessible ways,” said lobbyist Morgan Miller on behalf of the Iowa State Education Association. “We feel this legislation does the opposite, specifically narrowing the window to request an absentee ballot from 120 days down to 70 days, and then narrowing the early vote window to just 18 days.”

Amy Campbell, a lobbyist for the League of Women Voters or Iowa, AARP and the Area Agencies on Aging said the bill might adversely affect voters who work odd hours or who do not have transportation to the polls. With fewer days of early voting, too, voters could run into longer lines.

Several citizens attended the Senate subcommittee meeting, conducted over Zoom, to question why lawmakers wanted to shorten the absentee and early voting timeline, especially following record turnout in November.

Vicki Aden, an Iowa City resident, pointed to record voter turnout as a 2020 success story, due largely to early mail-in voting.

“This should be celebrated, not slapped down by this legislation,” she said. 

Jane Robinette, an Urbandale resident, asked a question echoed by several speakers and Democratic lawmakers: “Why are you wanting to make voting more difficult?”

In an evening House subcommittee meeting, Kaufmann said the shorter period for absentee and early voting would not hinder voting accessibility. Instead, it would help shorten the most intense part of the campaign season for Iowans tired of the political onslaught.

“People were sick of phone calls and robocalls, text messages, door-knocking, commercials,” he said. 

Campaigns gain veracity when voting begins, he argued, so 18 days would be less time for the most intense part of the cycle. Kaufmann also said that the national average for early and absentee voting was around 18 days.

November election set turnout records

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Iowa’s voter turnout soared in the 2020 general election. Secretary of State Paul Pate said in a Nov. 4 statement that more than 1,697,000 Iowans voted in the 2020 general election, besting the previous 2012 record of 1,589,951. Over a million Iowans voted absentee.

Former president Donald Trump won Iowa by a significant margin on election night, collecting 53.2% of the vote. But in other, closer states, Trump rallied his supporters with unfounded claims of election fraud, alleging that votes in his favor were not being counted fairly.

Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, cited alleged “shady dealings” in other states as a concern that led him to support the bill. 

“I think, myself, that Iowans’ votes were disenfranchised by some shady dealings in five cities around the country,” Schultz said, citing debunked Trump claims about Philadelphia voting fraud. “(It) shows what happens when you don’t strengthen your election system.”

State and federal courts have dismissed more than 50 lawsuits brought by the Trump administration and allies, Reuters reported.

Secretary of State spokesperson Kevin Hall said Wednesday that “charges (of voter fraud) have been brought in a few cases” from the November election in Iowa.