Evolving version of election bill speeds through Iowa House and Senate committees

Voters wait for the Polk County Election Office to open on Oct. 5, 2020, the first day for early voting. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

House and Senate committees passed a 36-page election bill Thursday that would shorten the window for absentee and early voting and would introduce harsher penalties for election officials who do not follow state guidelines.

Lawmakers introduced the identical bills, House File 590 and Senate File 413, just two days before.

Republicans leading the bills said the changes would protect elections and would make the campaign season more tolerable for voters. Democrats objected, saying the shorter absentee and early voting window could disenfranchise voters.

“I adamantly, ardently and judiciously believe that House Study Bill 213 does not suppress one single vote,” Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said.

Read More: How would HF 590 and SF 413 change Iowa’s elections?

The Senate State Government Committee voted Thursday 10-5 to move the bill. The House State Government Committee moved an identical version of the legislation by a 16-9 vote.

Kaufmann said the House will host a public hearing on the bill on Monday. He said the House tentatively plans to bring the bill to the floor on Wednesday. 

Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, told reporters he expects to see the bill on the Senate floor as early as Tuesday.

Changes to the bills likely on the way

Representatives in the State Government Committee negotiated possible amendments to the bill on Wednesday night and Thursday morning. While no amendments have been proposed formally, State Government Committee Chair Kaufmann and Ranking Member Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, identified several areas of the bill that were open to negotiation.

Kaufmann said the bill would definitely be amended to allow voters to request an absentee ballot by phone and to ensure that overseas and military voting would not be adversely affected by any new regulations.

Other potential changes include:

  • Allowing voters to designate someone to deliver their absentee ballot. Under the current text of the bill, only a family or household member, caregiver or qualified election official could deliver a ballot on behalf of another person.
  • Allowing more than one ballot drop box per county. Kaufmann said that the state of Iowa “already has over 4,000 blue drop boxes,” referring to U.S. Postal Service mailboxes, but that Republicans were open to a conversation about more county-run drop boxes in larger counties.
  • More precise language around election official penalties. Democrats raised concerns that the language surrounding legal penalties was too vague and could be used against county auditors who make honest mistakes. Kaufmann said that he would hold firm on the penalties but was open to clarifying the language.
  • A slightly longer window for absentee and early voting. Kaufmann said he was open to negotiations of “a slight increase” to the 18-day absentee and early voting window, if presented with compelling arguments.

Lawmakers shortened early and absentee voting period in 2017

Until 2017, Iowans had 40 days to vote early or absentee. That changed when lawmakers passed a controversial voter identification law that, in addition to requiring ID at the polls, shortened the window to 29 days.

Republican lawmakers repeatedly used that change as evidence of success, noting that voter turnout broke records in the 2020 presidential election.

“I sat in this chamber when I heard (that) going from 40 to 29 days, a step of 11 days, would cause less voting,” Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, said. “You know what? We get record turnout … as Senate Republicans pass laws in this chamber, election laws.”

Speaker of the House Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, concurred Thursday in a call with reporters.

“When we went from 40 to 29 days the last time, we had record turnout,” Grassley said. “I don’t think there’s any evidence to show that stops folks from coming out to vote.”

Democrats argued that the increased voter turnout can instead be attributed instead to the high-profile 2020 presidential election and the widespread use of absentee voting during the pandemic. Mascher cited absentee options like curbside voting and drop boxes, options that would be limited under the new bill, as boons to voter turnout.

“I don’t think that just because something has worked in the past when you’ve cut it, that means that more and more cuts will continue to work,” said Rep. Christina Bohannan, D-Iowa City.

Democrats and Republicans also sparred on whether the bill would actually improve the election system for Iowans. 

Smith said the bill will increase uniformity across Iowa’s counties and that the increased penalties for county auditors will ensure that election laws are followed. Democrats responded that there was no widespread fraud in recent elections, as former President Donald Trump and Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, have falsely alleged.

Kaufmann told a House subcommittee Wednesday night that the proposal would also shorten the most intense and, for some, irritating time of the campaign season: the final countdown to Election Day.

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

Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines, said the benefits of a longer voting period would outweigh the annoyances.

“Making sure that a voter can vote trumps complaints from (constituents) that they’re getting too many phone calls or too many door-knocks,” Hunter said. “The right of the vote has to trump everything.”

Fact check: How would Iowa compare with other states?

Democrats argued Thursday that 18 days to vote absentee would make Iowa one of the most restrictive states in the country. Republicans said 18 days to vote early is about average. They’re both right.

Under the proposed bill, election officials would not be allowed to send out absentee ballots until 18 days before Election Day. Accounting for postal delays, that would give voters about two weeks to fill them out and send them back. Under current law, county commissioners can mail ballots beginning 29 days before an election.

Democrats in both chambers pointed out that allowing 18 days for absentee ballots to be sent out and returned would give Iowa one of the most restrictive time frames, tied with Washington for the shortest number of days. According to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, this is true. 

However, shortening the early in-person voting timeframe from 29 days to 18 days would put Iowa at about the national average. The National Conference of State Legislatures data show that early voting periods range from four days to 45 days, with an average of 19 days.