Iowa’s new elections bill already facing its first legal challenge

Calling Iowa’s new election law “a cynical manipulation of the electoral process,” a group of Latin American citizens is suing the state. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Calling Iowa’s new election law “a cynical manipulation of the electoral process” and “an exercise in voter suppression,” the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa has filed a lawsuit against the state to block its implementation.

The lawsuit, filed in Polk County District Court, names Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate and Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller as defendants, and seeks an injunction that would prevent Pate and Miller from implementing and enforcing various provisions of Senate File 413.

The lawsuit also seeks a declaratory judgment that implementing the challenged provisions of the bill would violate the Iowa Constitution.

The bill was signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds on Monday, less than 24 hours before the lawsuit was filed, and it took effect immediately.

“Taken as a whole,” the lawsuit alleges, “the bill targets and restricts virtually every aspect of the voting process — registering to vote, requesting and submitting absentee ballots, and even in-person voting on Election Day.”

The state has yet to file a response to the lawsuit. Pate issued a written statement: “The Iowa Legislature makes the laws. It is our job as election officials to follow those laws. Iowa is consistently one of the top states in the nation for voter registration and participation and I’ll keep striving to make us number one. My office will continue providing resources to help every eligible Iowan be a voter and understand any changes in election law. Our goal has always been to make it easy to vote, but hard to cheat.”

In support of its case, LULAC argues that last year, Iowa broke records in voter turnout, with 1.7 million people — more than 75% of all registered voters — participating in the 2020 general election.

More than 1 million of those individuals cast absentee ballots, setting another record. The record turnout was “especially notable among the 15 percent of Iowans who are members of minority groups, including Iowa’s Latino community, which constitutes around 6 percent of the state’s population,” the lawsuit alleges. “Yet one of the Iowa Legislature’s top post-election priorities was to pass an omnibus election bill that restricts nearly every form of voting that Iowans — particularly minority voters — relied on in 2020.”

Among the provisions in the bill that are noted in the lawsuit:

  • A reduction in the number of days when voters can register to vote prior to an election.
  • A reduction in the number of days when voters can request absentee ballots.
  • A shortened window in which absentee voting is allowed.
  • A reduction in the number of days when county auditors can send out absentee ballots.
  • Fewer days for most voters to return their absentee ballots.
  • Restrictions on the ability of election officials to establish convenient opportunities for absentee voting, with each county auditor limited to one drop box for ballots — regardless of the county’s size or population — that can only be placed only at the auditor’s office.
  • Criminalization of the act of assisting voters with returning absentee ballots, and prohibitions on allowing voters from enlist the help of others in returning their ballots.

LUCAL argues the bill “is largely a grab-bag of amendments and new restrictions that lack any unifying theme other than making both absentee and Election Day voting more difficult for lawful Iowa voters.”

They organization notes that while Senate File 413’s supporters say it is intended to “ensure election integrity,” the secretary of state and other Republican leaders have said Iowa’s elections are already secure and a model for the nation.

GOP supporters of the bill said it was needed in part to address concerns about the results of the 2020 presidential election, even though President Trump carried Iowa.

“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.”

The lawsuit says that while some GOP supporters of the bill say it is intended to address the public’s “concern” that Iowa’s elections are not reliable, any actual concern along those lines “is the result of efforts to plant and sow baseless mistrust.”

Because the new restrictions impose an undue burden on the fundamental right to vote, and violate multiple provisions of the Iowa Constitution, they should be declared unconstitutional, LULAC claims.

The League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa is part of LULAC, an organization that has approximately 150,000 members throughout the United States and Puerto Rico and more than 600 members in Iowa.

LULAC is the largest and oldest Latino civil rights organization in the United States.

Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.