High turnout does not mean there’s no voter suppression

November 8, 2021 8:00 am

County auditors say they had to turn down hundreds of voters who requested absentee ballots under a new deadline. (Photo illustration by Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowans turned out in better-than-usual numbers for last week’s city and school board elections. It’s always encouraging to see improvements in voter participation.

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, attributed the higher turnout to increased voter engagement in local issues.

“People are much more engaged and I don’t know if that’s just COVID or if it’s social media bringing more of a focus (on local elections), but people are definitely getting more in the weeds and wanting their voice heard on local issues and I think that’s great,” Pate told Radio Iowa.

His view was well-supported, especially in urban areas, by increased attention and media focus on controversial campaign issues related to school face-mask rules and the teaching of subjects involving race.

The Republican Party of Iowa, however, attributed higher-than-usual turnout to the restrictive new laws on voting that they marched through the Legislature this year. The party wrote in a news release:

“Earlier this year, Iowa Republicans passed election integrity legislation that improved the state’s election systems. Instantly, Iowa Democrats and their allies began their misinformation campaign — that Iowa elections would now be more difficult to vote in and votes would be suppressed. Once again, their political spin and fear mongering never came to fruition. In reality, Iowans were more confident in our elections and went to the polls in large numbers to elect local leaders that will defend their freedoms, shattering statewide turnout.”

Republican lawmakers made a similar argument when voters turned out in record numbers for the 2020 general election after the GOP passed a raft of voting restrictions. Among them was a reduction in the time to cast an absentee ballot from 40 days to 29.

Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, argued the record turnout justified further reducing the absentee voting window to 18 days. “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.”

As I wrote at the time, that record turnout was mostly attributable to the incendiary level of interest in the presidential race and several close congressional contests.

The deliberately faulty logic here should worry Iowa voters. If voter turnout was better than usual with only 18 days to cast absentee ballots, wouldn’t limiting early voting to 11 days generate even bigger turnout? Of course not.

Since voter fraud isn’t a factor in Iowa, the only reason to limit absentee voting is to curtail a form of participation preferred by Democrats. There’s no reason to believe Republicans won’t keep chopping away at opportunities to vote by mail.

Last week’s election turnout was significantly higher than in 2019, with just over 425,000 ballots cast compared to 358,000 two years ago. But it was still only 19% of Iowa’s 2.2 million registered voters. That’s not something to celebrate. It’s certainly not reason to further curtail Iowans’ voting opportunities.

Even if turnout had been 50%, however, that wouldn’t prove there was no voter suppression. Increased interest in an election by people who don’t normally vote in off years does not mean more restrictive laws didn’t discourage or stymie some people who wanted to vote but couldn’t. You can have record turnout and still disenfranchise people who needed more time to vote by mail because of illness, mobility issues, lack of transportation or having to work after 8 p.m. on Election Day.

County auditors who oversee elections in Iowa’s two largest counties, Polk and Linn, told Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter Katie Akin that they had to turn down a total of 423 people who asked to be mailed an absentee ballot in the five days between the old deadline for ballot requests and the new, shorter deadline of 10 days before the election. Most of those voters probably received a ballot another way or voted in person. But probably not all of them.

Auditors said they only received a few mailed ballots that didn’t count after the 8 p.m. deadline on Election Day. But there were nine otherwise valid ballots in Polk and Linn counties alone that auditors said didn’t count because of the new deadlines.

The county auditor in Marshall County, a Republican, told Iowa Capital Dispatch her office struggled with the shorter window to mail absentee ballots to voters. Another Republican auditor, in Sioux County, said the new law did “not necessarily” improve Iowa’s election process.

That’s an understatement. Phony fears about fraud can never justify creating new barriers to vote for hundreds of Iowans or disqualifying even one otherwise valid vote. That’s voter suppression.

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.