Public weighs in on controversial election bill zooming through Iowa Legislature

By: - February 22, 2021 7:40 pm

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)

An elections bill advancing quickly through the Iowa Legislature faced accusations of voter suppression from some and accolades for election security from others.

The bill, known separately as House File 590 and Senate File 413, proposes several changes to Iowa’s election process, including:

  • Fewer days to request and return absentee ballots;
  • Fewer days for in-person early voting;
  • Fewer absentee ballot drop boxes;
  • And harsher penalties for election official misconduct.

More than two dozen people spoke in person at the meeting, each with two minutes to make their case for or against the legislation. 

Advocates said the bill would strengthen Iowa’s election system. Opponents argued that the changes might make it harder to vote, especially for people with disabilities or limited transportation who rely heavily on early and absentee voting. 

“We’re a rural state. Voting is never convenient,” said Linda Hagedorn, president of the Ames League of Women Voters. “But it’s almost impossible for the homebound, the sick and those who don’t get transportation.”

Deidre DeJear, a former secretary of state candidate, made an appeal to Iowa’s history of “standing up on behalf of all people” as she urged lawmakers to oppose the legislation.

“Let us not restrict democracy, but allow democracy to simply exist,” she said.

Misinformation surrounding 2020 election has ripple effect on election opinions

Both supporters and opponents to the bill brought up the 2020 presidential election in their remarks. Former President Donald Trump alleged that there was widespread voter fraud, especially among mail-in ballots, that ultimately cost him the election. These claims have been widely debunked by election experts, and over 50 lawsuits filed by Trump and his allies have been dismissed, according to Reuters

Law student Emily Russell said Monday that the stricter penalties for election officials would be beneficial to voters like her who still mistrust the system following the 2020 election.

“We need to face the reality that after recent events surrounding the 2020 election, many Americans do not have faith in our elections,” she said. “If we don’t start taking steps to increase public confidence in the integrity of our elections now, all of us will continue to live in a divided society.”

Another speaker at the meeting brought up the false theory that Dominion brand voting machines were hacked or used to create additional ballots. Dominion on Monday sued a Trump ally who repeatedly made false claims about the company.

“Right now, you’ve got half the people that voted in the national election that are feeling like yesterday’s newspaper in the bottom of the bird cage,” said Gary Leffler, who often drives an American flag tractor at Republican events.

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, echoed concerns about a lack of faith in election systems, which he called “the ultimate voter suppression.”

“For whatever reason, political or not, there are thousands upon thousands of Iowans that do not have faith in our election systems,” he said.

On the other side, Janice Weiner, a former diplomat and Iowa Senate candidate, argued that harsher penalties were not a solution to lingering distrust due to misinformation.

“The remedy for the big lie of a stolen election is not to take an ax to election laws that work exceedingly well,” Weiner said. “It’s simply to tell the truth.”

Auditors concerned about undue burden of new penalties

Several county auditors spoke at Monday’s meeting about their concerns that harsher penalties for electoral misconduct could have a “chilling” effect to recruiting new workers and for reporting any mistakes.

Woodbury County Auditor Pat Gill said the legislation would “pit county auditors against the secretary of state.” He spoke of a mistake he identified in a previous election when it seemed like a handful of people voted twice. Gill said he reported it because he knew, at worse, he would receive a letter of technical infraction.

“In the future, auditors who are put in the same position may face a vindictive secretary, regardless of party affiliation, and must make a very unpleasant choice that places them in harm’s way,” Gill said.

Under the proposed legislation, “technical infractions” a term which lawmakers struggled to define in committee meetings could trigger a fine of up to $10,000.

Adams County Auditor Becky Bissell identified herself as a Republican before raising several concerns she had with voting accessibility in rural counties.

“Smaller, rural counties have a large elderly population who typically chose to vote absentee because of weather or health concerns,” she said. “Why are we making it harder for them to vote?”

Bissell said that Sen. Tom Shipley’s mother resides in her district and calls each election year to request an absentee ballot. Under the initial language of the bill, auditors would not be able to send absentee ballot request forms, even if a voter specifically requested one. Kaufmann said in his closing comments that issue would be amended before the bill passed.

Election bill will continue to move fast

House File 590 and Senate File 413 advanced quickly from their initial proposal Tuesday through committee last week. 

Republican leaders in the House and the Senate have argued that the changes will not suppress the vote. They pointed toward record turnout in the 2020 presidential election, despite the fact that Iowa’s early and absentee voting period was shortened by 11 days in 2017.

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

Kaufmann conceded to several possible amendments in a committee on Thursday. He said that an amendment will be published Tuesday morning that addresses several concerns with the bill.

Both the House and Senate are expected to debate the bill on the floor this week.

What more do you want to know about this bill or about Iowa’s election process? Email reporter Katie Akin at [email protected]

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.