Senate passes major election bill one week after its introduction

By: - February 23, 2021 6:36 pm

Des Moines voters speak with poll workers at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd on Nov. 3, 2020. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The Iowa Senate passed a sweeping elections bill Tuesday that would shorten the time frame for absentee and early voting and create strict statewide standards for county auditors with felony penalties for misconduct.

“The 2020 election saw record turnout in the state and across the country,” said Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, who led a three-hour debate on the legislation. “However, it did expose some serious vulnerabilities with election laws and enforcement.”

Tuesday’s debate came just one week after the bill was first introduced in the House and Senate. Smith amended the original text of the bill with several changes, many of which had been discussed by his cosponsor in the House, Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton. Included in the amended text of the bill:

  • There will be 20 days for early in-person voting, rather than the initially proposed 18. Current law allows 29 days for early, in-person voting.
  • There will be 20 days for auditors to send out and receive absentee ballots, rather than the initially proposed 18. Current law allows 29 days to send and receive absentee ballots.
  • Commissioners may send an absentee ballot request form to a voter who requests one. The forms may not be sent en masse to voters who do not request them.
  • Absentee ballots must be delivered to the county auditor’s office by 8 p.m. on Election Day to be counted, except for certain groups.
  • Polls for all elections will close at 8 p.m. Iowa’s standards currently vary between different elections; polls generally close at 9 p.m. for general elections.
  • Employees may request two hours off work to vote, rather than three.

Other major parts of the bill stayed the same from the initial draft.

  • Only some people may deliver an absentee ballot on behalf of someone else. That group includes caretakers, family or household members and designated election officials.
  • Absentee ballot requests may begin 70 days before an election, rather than the current 120 days before.
  • Satellite voting locations must be requested through petition. A county commissioner cannot independently choose to hold satellite voting locations. 
  • County commissioners may set up one drop box for absentee ballots.
  • Failure to follow election laws could result in felony charges including jail time and fines of up to $10,245 for county election officials.

Democrats maintained that fewer days to vote and additional restrictions on absentee and early voting will make the election process more difficult for voters and for election officials.

“Senate File 413 will make it harder to vote and it will create new challenges for the women and men who are responsible for conducting our elections,” said Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville.

Wahls also criticized Republican lawmakers for rushing the bill through the legislative process.

“Why aren’t we taking the time to get this right?” he asked. “Why aren’t we taking the time to forge a bipartisan compromise that can show the people of the state that Democrats and Republicans can agree when it comes to election security?”

Republican lawmakers insisted that the changes would not disenfranchise Iowans. Through the committee process and in Tuesday’s debate, Republican leaders pointed toward record turnout in 2020 as a sign that constricting the absentee and early voting periods do not hinder voter turnout, as Democrats have previously predicted.

“They admit right here, (with) everything we’ve done in the past, elections run smoothly,” Smith said. “It’s propaganda, that’s what it is.”

Other Republicans said that voting in Iowa is easy and will remain doable under the new legislation.

“It’s not hard to vote,” said Sen. Zach Whiting, R-Spirit Lake. “I absolutely reject the premise of this entire discussion.”

Republican lawmakers also said the legislation would correct state-level problems from the 2020 election. Smith said three county auditors broke the law in the 2020 general election and the new legislation would create a better system of penalties for those situations.

“Auditors are going rogue in this state,” Smith said in his closing comments. “They are vetoing what we pass.”

The Senate voted 30-18 to pass the bill. The House is expected to consider a companion bill later this week.

November election looms large over Senate debate

President Donald Trump won Iowa by 8 points in the 2020 election. It was a banner year for Iowa Republicans, who won hefty majorities in the Legislature and took back two U.S. House seats, pending a challenge in the closely contested 2nd District.

Even so, the presidential election and Trump’s allegations of voting fraud permeated Tuesday’s Senate debate. There has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the U.S. Fact-checkers, election experts and court rulings have repeatedly debunked claims that the election was stolen.

Kevin Hall, spokesperson for the Iowa Secretary of State, said charges have been brought in “a few cases” of voter fraud in Iowa. Several Republicans argued that fraud is a present danger to Iowa’s elections, some repeating the same false claims that Trump and his allies have circulated.

“Millions and millions and millions of people believe there was fraud,” said Sen. Jim Carlin, R-Sioux City. “Most of us in my caucus, in the Republican caucus, believe the election was stolen.”

Carlin said fraud was “the worst kind of voter suppression.” He argued the new restrictions on absentee voting and stricter penalties for election official misconduct would improve election security in Iowa.

Democrats responded that there was no widespread evidence of fraud in Iowa or in other states. Wahls noted that Trump and his allies filed dozens of lawsuits across the country alleging fraud. Not a single lawsuit was upheld.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said an unfounded belief in fraud was not a valid rationale for the election bill, especially after Iowa ran a successful and record-breaking election in 2020. 

“The reason that some people have lost faith or are losing faith in our elections is that Republicans have manufactured, fostered and encouraged, through silence, conspiracy theories and cult behavior,” he said. 

Tracking the 2021 election bill

The House is expected to debate a companion bill, House File 590, later this week.

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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.