Voters stretch a block down Court Avenue around the corner from the Polk County Election Office on Oct. 30, 2020. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
As Republicans in the Iowa Statehouse prepare to once again make major changes in state election laws, the prevailing question Iowans have been asking is why.
Why, when Iowa had record voter turnout during the COVID-19 pandemic, would lawmakers want to mess with success?
Why, after Donald Trump won the state and the GOP won back at least one and possibly two congressional seats, and increased its legislative majority, would Republicans think there’s still a problem?
Why, when there were no reports of any significant voter fraud either before or after the 2020 election, do GOP lawmakers still think Iowa has an election problem to solve?
Republican legislators’ talking points last week about House File 590 raised more questions than answers.
Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, and House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, both contended that reducing the period for early voting would address voters’ concerns that campaigns go on too long.
“People were sick of phone calls and robocalls, text messages, door-knocking, commercials,” Kaufmann said during a subcommittee meeting Wednesday.
Grassley said it was “just common sense” that a shorter window for voting would lead to shorter campaigns.
Political scientists raise doubts
I asked several Iowa political scientists, who raised doubts about the theory.
“I don’t know of any specific research on the question, but it doesn’t seem that likely to be linked,” said Dave Peterson, a political science professor at Iowa State University. “A bigger concern would be the length of time between the primary and the general election. Longer gaps lead to more campaigning.”
Peterson pointed out that voters who turn in their ballots early would likely escape some of those annoying phone calls and knocks at the door.
“Smart campaigns will get the data on who has already voted and will stop calling/mailing/canvassing to people have already voted. There will still be advertising and news coverage, but I know that once my vote is recorded, the phone calls from candidates stop,” he said. “If Iowans are really concerned about getting less information from candidates, then the earlier you vote the earlier that will stop.”
Political science professor Chris Larimer of University of Northern Iowa also had not heard of any research on the issue. ISU professor emeritus Steffen Schmidt noted that we “live in the time now of the perpetual campaign.” Oddsmakers are already tracking the potential Republican presidential field for 2024.
Less time to vote = larger turnout?
Kaufmann, Grassley and Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, also argued that since the sky didn’t fall, as many Democrats predicted, after 2017 when lawmakers reduced the early-voting period from 40 days to 29, then it will be just fine to reduce the period to 18 days.
Smith actually tried to claim the changes were responsible for record turnout last year. “I sat in this chamber when I heard (that) going from 40 to 29 days, a step of 11 days, would cause less voting,” Smith said. “You know what? We get record turnout … as Senate Republicans pass laws in this chamber, election laws.”
The enormously contentious presidential race and close competitions in several of Iowa’s congressional districts were the obvious reasons for record turnout in Iowa, but that didn’t come up in the GOP talking points. Instead, they would like Iowans to think that continuing to reduce the amount of time Iowans have to cast ballots will magically result in more and more voting.
If that were the case, then shortening the number of hours polls are open on Election Day ought to increase turnout, also. But Republicans didn’t agree to require polls to close at 8 p.m. instead of an hour later when they debated election changes in 2019.
Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, offered perhaps the most bizarre rationale. He suggested Iowa needed to change its laws because of “shady dealings” in other states.
“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.”
Instead, it seems far more likely that the GOP is still betting on the likelihood that less early voting will mean less turnout for Democrats. In November, more than 80% of registered Democrats, as opposed to 54% of registered Republicans, participated in the election through absentee voting.
Punishing local election officials
There’s another reason behind this election bill, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. I wrote last week about some Iowa Republican legislators using their majority power to target individuals and groups for punishment. I should have waited a week, because it turns out they were just getting started.
This election bill would throw county elections officials in jail on felony charges if they don’t follow election guidelines set out by the Iowa secretary of state. Jail, for heaven’s sake. The bill as written made the provision retroactive.
The measure directly targets three county auditors who sent out absentee ballot request forms with some voted identification information filled in. The auditors were sued, they lost in court, and they had to send out new ballot request forms to thousands of voters. I doubt any auditors would try that again.
But avoiding future issues isn’t the point. These lawmakers want to make an example of anyone who dares to cross them.
Smith had this to say about the enhanced penalties last week:
“The laws we pass in this building will be followed by elected officials in this state. The days of ignoring laws that are passed in this Capitol are over in the state of Iowa,” Smith declared.
Iowans will have a chance Monday to tell He Who Shall Not Be Ignored and the other lawmakers what they think of this legislation. The hearing is at 5 p.m. and those who wish to speak can sign up online.
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