GOP works to pile on more absentee ballot rules

February 21, 2022 8:00 am

Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, demonstrates the multistep process of preparing an absentee ballot during a committee meeting Feb. 17, 2022. (Screen shot from Iowa Senate livestream)

The Republican majority in the Iowa Legislature has approved more than 50 pages of new election laws since the beginning of 2020, with the result of making it more complicated to obtain and return an absentee ballot.

They have made changes over the past few years to nearly every aspect of the absentee voting process:

  • Voters have new ID requirements to follow and less time before an election to request a ballot.
  • Election officials could not make even obvious corrections to absentee ballot request forms without first contacting the voter.
  • County auditors and the secretary of state can’t send out general mailings of absentee ballot request forms.
  • Voters have less time to complete and return their ballot once it’s mailed out.
  • They have fewer options for returning their ballot because of limits on drop boxes and restrictions on who can return a ballot for another person.

Apparently, too many Iowans have managed to vote anyway. So the dyspeptic duo of Sen. Roby Smith and Rep. Bobby Kaufmann is back for a third year in a row to change the rules.

In this year’s 32-page bill, Roby and Bobby want county auditors to create a series of absentee ballot envelopes that fit inside each other, sort of like Russian nesting dolls. Voters will have to put their completed ballot inside a “secrecy” envelope, which then goes inside an “affidavit” envelope.

The whole wad then goes into a “return” envelope. But first, the voter has to write their driver’s license number or voter ID number on the outside of the “affidavit” envelope. That’s the envelope in the middle of the stack. If they forget, or get the number wrong, or write it on the wrong envelope, or fail to seal the affidavit envelope (or the glue on the envelope doesn’t stick, because envelope glue only sticks about half the time), the ballot is considered invalid unless an election official can contact the voter.

“In my opinion, we are adding one more hurdle, one more obstacle to our constituents’ ability to cast a vote,” Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, said during a committee meeting last week.

Thanks to Bobby and Roby, current law forbids auditors from mailing this envelope shell game more than 20 days before Election Day. Before the 2021 law, absentee ballots could be mailed 29 days before an election and voters could have them postmarked late as the day before Election Day and still have their vote count.

Editor’s note:  The previous paragraph has been updated to clarify that before the 2021 law took effect, voters returning ballots by mail needed to have them postmarked by the day before Election Day.

When you consider the potential for delays in mail delivery and another new Bobby-Roby law requiring all absentee ballots to arrive at the auditor’s office before polls close on Election Day, that doesn’t leave a lot of time for auditors’ staff to call hundreds of voters about the ballots. County auditors told Iowa Capital Dispatch after the 2021 election that they struggled to get absentee ballots out under the new deadline and they were worried about the 2022 general election.

This provision would not kick in until January 2023 under the current draft of the bill, but it would take place before the 2024 presidential election. (Assuming lawmakers don’t change the rules yet again.)

There are other provisions in this year’s bill, some of which are needed changes. For example, the proposal shores up some of the ambiguity in Iowa’s recount law, which created havoc in Iowa’s 2nd District congressional race after Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Rita Hart finished six votes apart.

The GOP’s stated reason to keep heaping more and more complicated rules and restrictions on the absentee ballot process continues to be the Big Lie of election fraud, which was practically non-existent before the new laws and therefore continues to not exist.

In the absence of a need to stop fraud, the only explanation for these laws continues to be an attack on a form of voting preferred by more Democrats than Republicans. More and more fussy and ever-changing rules eventually will leave some voters so frustrated or fearful of making a mistake that they give up on voting by mail. Or maybe county auditors, faced with increasingly time-consuming requirements and shorter deadlines, will screw up so spectacularly that the GOP has an excuse to do away with absentee voting for just about everyone.

Who knows where this will stop? Maybe next year, lawmakers will decide all absentee ballots will need to be folded into origami elephants and returned with a DNA sample.

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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.