A major election bill passed the Legislature. What does that mean for voters?

By: - February 24, 2021 7:53 pm

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)

A sweeping election bill that shrinks Iowa’s absentee voting window and introduces new penalties for election misconduct is headed to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk.

The House passed the bill, Senate File 413, on Wednesday evening by a 57-37 vote. The Senate voted 30-18 to pass an identical bill on Tuesday.

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, led the debate on the bill. He said the 2020 election was a success but that the bill was meant to further strengthen Iowa’s voting procedures. He called it the “election integrity bill.”

“It is my view that government should be run like a business … You look at what you did right, what you did wrong, and you make improvements,” Kaufmann said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing here today.” 

Democrats responded that the bill would not improve the current system and would instead restrict Iowans’ ability to vote. Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, said that if Iowa was operating like a business, its Yelp page would have “zero stars and the comments would scare people from ever trusting their elected officials again.”

“It was my hope that we would actually improve access to the polls,” Mascher said. “I should have known better.”

Reynolds, a Republican, is expected to sign the bill into law. It will go into effect immediately. Here’s what will change for Iowa voters:

Twenty days for absentee voting

Before 2017, Iowans had a 40-day absentee voting window. That means that a county auditor could start sending out absentee ballots beginning 40 days before Election Day, giving voters over a month to complete the ballots and return them.

The Legislature shortened that window to 29 days as part of a 2017 voter ID law. That’s how long voters had for the November 2020 election. Republican lawmakers pointed toward record voter turnout in the 2020 general election as evidence that offering fewer absentee voting days did not suppress the vote.

Under the new bill, that window will be even shorter. County auditors can start sending absentee ballots 20 days before Election Day. 

Changes to absentee ballot request process

Voters in Iowa must request an absentee ballot if they wish to vote by mail. Absentee ballot request forms can be completed at the auditor’s office or printed from the Secretary of State website.

The new bill clarifies that voters may call their county auditor to request an absentee ballot request form be sent to them by mail. However, county auditors may not send out an absentee ballot request form to all registered voters or to any Iowans who do not specifically request them. 

Previously, voters could send in their absentee ballot request form 120 days before the election. For a November election, that means that Iowans could request their absentee ballot in the middle of the summer, even if the ballot itself would not arrive until, at most, 29 days before the election.

With the passage of the bill, the earliest day a voter can request an absentee ballot from their county auditor will be 70 days before an election. That would be late August ahead of a November election.

New cut-off for absentee ballots received on Election Day

In previous elections, absentee ballots would be counted as long as they were postmarked the day before Election Day. That means you could put an absentee ballot in the mailbox on Monday morning and it would, eventually, be counted in Iowa’s final vote totals.

Now, absentee ballots must arrive at the auditor’s office by 8 p.m. on Election Day to be counted.

There are a few exceptions to this new rule. Voters in address confidentiality programs, like the Safe at Home program for domestic violence survivors, will still be counted based on the postmarked date. Out-of-state military ballots that arrive after Election Day will also be valid based on the postmark.

New ballot drop-off and drop box restrictions

Some counties deployed absentee ballot drop boxes for the 2020 general election. These secure boxes allowed voters to deposit their absentee ballots with no interpersonal contact or time restrictions.

However, drop boxes were not explicitly legal under Iowa law. 

Under the new law, county auditors would be allowed to set up one drop box at their office. The box would be under security to prevent any misconduct or tampering.

There will also be new regulations on who can return a completed absentee ballot. Right now, a friend or neighbor could return your ballot, so long as it is properly sealed and signed. The new law specifies that only household or family members, caregivers and election officials assisting with confined voters may deliver a ballot on behalf of another person. 

An unauthorized person returning someone else’s ballot would be committing a serious misdemeanor.

Twenty days for early in-person voting

Before this bill, county auditors could offer early in-person voting locations beginning 29 days before an election. One location would be at the county auditor’s office, allowing Iowans to cast an absentee ballot in person. Some counties would also offer satellite voting sites at places like community centers or libraries. 

The bill makes two major changes to early in-person voting.

First, it shortens the early voting window to 20 days, just like the absentee voting window.

Second, the bill requires that county auditors open satellite voting locations only when petitioned to do so. At least 100 eligible electors must formally request a satellite voting location for the auditor to open one.

Polls close at 8 p.m. for all elections

Poll hours have varied across Iowa’s elections. In the most recent general election, polls closed at 9 p.m.

Under the new bill, polls in all elections will close at 8 p.m. statewide.

Employees allowed two hours to vote on Election Day

State law mandates that Iowans who work on Election Day must have enough time to vote, if they so choose. In current law, employees who do not have three consecutive hours off during the time when polls are open, they can take that time off work.

The new bill says Iowans will be allowed two hours to vote, not three.

Voters marked inactive after one missed general election 

Presently, Iowans will be marked as an inactive voter if they do not vote in two consecutive general elections and do not respond to a notice from election officials. Under the new bill, Iowans will receive notice that they will be marked inactive after just one missed general election.

Voters will be marked as “active” again when they request an absentee ballot, vote in an election, register again or report a change in name, address, contact information or political affiliation.

Changes for candidates

Candidates for political office in Iowa will need to collect more signatures on nomination petitions. These provisions apply to any candidates who will be appearing on the ballot in or after 2022.

U.S. president, vice president, governor, lieutenant governor and U.S. senators must collect 3,500 signatures from eligible electors across the state.

U.S. representative candidates must collect 1,726 signatures from eligible electors in that congressional district. 

Other candidates for statewide office need 2,500 signatures from eligible electors.

If a candidate has been nominated for a position by a political party, they can not also be nominated by a nonparty political organization for the same office in the same election.

Changes for county auditors

The county auditor is designated the county commissioner of elections. That means they oversee voter registration and conduct elections, including the collection and counting of absentee ballots.

The bill introduces new penalties for county auditors and election officials — employees of the state commissioner and county commissioners — who disobey state election laws, including 5-figure fines and potential jailtime.

Technical infraction: If the secretary of state issues a technical infraction against a county auditor, they may also face a fine of up to $10,000. The infraction will also be reported to the attorney general, who may pursue criminal charges.

Election misconduct in the first degree: Election officials could face a class “D” felony charge if they fail to perform election duties or if they perform duties in a way that would “hinder or disregard the object of the law.” Officials would face the same charge if they disobey election guidance from the secretary of state. A class “D” felony can result in up to five years incarceration and a fine of up to $10,245.

Election misconduct in the second degree: Failure to perform voter list maintenance would become an aggravated misdemeanor under the bill. That means up to two years incarcerated and a fine of up to $8,545.

Election misconduct in the third degree: Election officials who wrongfully interfere with a person who is allowed to be at a polling place could be charged with a serious misdemeanor, which can result in up to a year incarceration and a fine of up to $2,560.

How did we get here?

What do you want to know about this bill or about upcoming Iowa elections? Email your questions to 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.