Despite high turnout in Tuesday's election, some officials say new absentee voting laws sidelined some voters. (Photo by iStock /Getty Images Plus)
While Iowa saw a huge turnout in Tuesday’s primary election, critics say absentee voting laws may have slowed some voter participation.
The state reached its second-highest turnout for a primary election since 1994 Tuesday night, with more than 356,000 voters participating. The highest primary turnout was in 2020 by a large margin: More than 522,000 ballots were cast in the previous election.
That’s a difference of over 150,000 votes. There was a greater disparity in absentee voting: Absentee ballots made up just more than 73,000 votes cast in this year’s June election, compared to more than 411,000 in 2020.
The 2020 election stood out because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That year, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, mailed absentee ballot request forms to all registered voters and extended the state’s early voting window from 29 to 40 days.
But going forward, Iowans who want to vote absentee face new regulations from a bill passed by Republicans in 2021.
Absentee ballots rise but voters wary of mailing ballots
Early voting numbers were up from 2016, when roughly 38,000 absentee ballots were cast. They also exceeded the more than 50,000 absentee votes in 2018. Even so, Linn County Auditor Joel Miller, a Democrat who won the party nomination for Iowa secretary of state, said the new voting laws caused lags in the mail-in voting process.
About half — 36,000 — of this year’s early votes were returned by mail, according to the secretary of state, as opposed to satellite voting or delivery to auditor’s offices, drop boxes or polling places.
“The laws have greatly inconvenienced voters,” Miller said. “Voters are less (trusting) of the process of voting by mail, because they’re not certain they’re going to get their mail in time.”
The new legislation shortened the absentee voting window from 29 to 20 days and prevented county election officials from sending out absentee ballot request forms in many cases. The new law also made mail-in ballots due when polls closed instead of up to a week later if they were in the mail before the election.
Republicans argued the regulations make elections more secure, but Democrats described the law as a “voter suppression bill.” Iowa Democratic Party Chair Rep. Ross Wilburn released a statement when the legislation passed, saying the law made voting more difficult for Iowans.
“Despite Iowans and local election officials’ overwhelming opposition, Kim Reynolds and Republicans in the Legislature fast-tracked these dramatic changes,” Wilburn said. “This isn’t about improving our election process, it’s about continuing the Republican Party’s outrageous lies and attacks on the democratic process across the country.”
Voter Nick Brown, 46, said he remained very cautious about public spaces due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but chose to vote in person Tuesday at his Des Moines polling site.
“I came in person because actually, I found it easier,” he said. “I’ve used the absentee ballot more in the past, but this time this was easier.”
Iowa’s absentee ballot process is a long, multi-step process, Brown said, which is why he chose instead to vote in person.
To vote absentee in Iowa, registered voters must send in an absentee voting request form to their county auditor at least 15 days before the election. The ballot must be mailed back or hand delivered to their county auditor’s office by time polls close. The new law also restricts who can return ballots: Only the voter or a designated family, household member or caregiver can return the ballot.
Polk auditor: Deadline changes affect engagement
Polk County auditor Jamie Fitzgerald said his office spent time leading up to the election informing Polk County voters about the new county drop box and the importance of returning ballots by the new deadline. Tuesday night, they worked with post offices around the county to ensure mail-in ballots were returned to their office by 8 p.m.
Changes to voting deadlines always cause changes in voter engagement, Fitzgerald said. He emphasized that voter engagement looks very different in primaries than in general elections.
“Primaries are family fights, and they’re candidate driven. When we start at the general election, that’s going to be party driven,” Fitzgerald said. “So that’s going to be a lot more activity.”
Democrats said the state’s absentee voting process and new laws surrounding it hinder Iowans from voting – especially those who are older and or have disabilities. Miller campaigned on making voting easier for Iowans.
Former President Donald Trump’s campaign sued Miller in the 2020 election for sending local voters absentee ballot request forms pre-filled with some voter identification information. The judge ruled in favor of Trump’s campaign, invalidating about 50,000 request forms.
The Democratic candidate advocated for returning to a longer early voting period and more time to request absentee ballots.
“We had a lot of tolerance built into the system to accommodate some errors,” he said. “We’ve removed all those powers that allow people to make errors.”
Republicans say the new absentee voting laws make Iowa elections more secure, and praised the primary election’s high turnout.
“I’ve got to compliment all the voters and our unsung heroes, those poll workers,” Pate said in a news release. “They came through with flying colors. We saw thousands of Iowans coming out to have their voice heard and democracy in action.”
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