Commentary

Iowa’s new absentee voting restrictions worked perfectly — for Republicans

November 14, 2022 8:00 am

Early voting was down about 30% in Iowa compared to the 2018 midterm elections. (Photo illustration by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

My mom was in the hospital most of the week before Election Day. It wasn’t planned, so she had not voted early or requested an absentee ballot before she was admitted.

I knew she wanted to vote, so last weekend I called her county auditor’s office to ask about voting from the hospital. Iowa’s law allows voters who are hospitalized or in health care centers to request a visit from a bipartisan team from the auditor’s office to bring them an absentee ballot and allow them to vote.

I was told there would be a team from the auditor’s office at the hospital that Monday, the day before Election Day, and they would visit my mom if she let the hospital know she wanted to vote. So Mom told several different nurses, but didn’t hear anything back and nobody showed up to take her vote.

Thankfully, she was released from the hospital on Election Day. She and my dad stopped to vote on the way home.

Later that night, I bit my tongue as I listened to a Republican friend opine that despite new GOP-approved laws to shorten the time for early voting and voting by mail, Iowans who really wanted to vote would find a way. I guess that was true in my mom’s case, although she could have easily missed the opportunity if her doctors had decided to keep her another day.

Things happen in people’s lives that aren’t planned. That’s why the 29-day window for early voting in Iowa’s previous law made more sense for voters and for the county auditor’s offices that administer elections than the 20 days in current law.

Republicans who run the show at the Statehouse disagreed. They said the period needed to be shortened because of election security, despite zero evidence of any fraud related to the time allowed for early voting.

It wasn’t fraud they were worried about – it was the fact that Democrats were more likely to vote early or by mail than Republicans. The lawmakers leading debate on the legislation mocked Democrats who worried about disenfranchising voters, noting that turnout had risen in 2018 after the early-voting window was shortened from 40 days to 29.

In 2018, voter turnout for the general election was 61%, according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s data. This year, turnout was about 55% in unofficial results. The difference was about 100,500 voters. About 371,000 Iowans voted early or absentee this year, about 30% less than in 2018. The difference was about 164,500 voters. There are a lot of reasons turnout might be down, but less early and absentee voting was certainly one of them.

Pollster J. Ann Selzer, who conducts the Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll, connected the dots as she discussed the drop in early voting:

“And so what happens, the consequence of that is that traditionally Democrats bank a whole lot of votes in early voting, that that’s a big push that they have, and roughly that vote is two to one, roughly twice as many people voting for Democrats as voting for Republicans,” she said during a weekend interview on Iowa Press. “And so when you shrink the proportion of the total electorate that is, to me, that is one of the compelling explanations for why Iowa went so Republican.”

Was there less absentee voting because of the new law? Some county auditors said they received fewer requests for absentee ballots because people missed the earlier deadline. Auditors in just four counties reported after the primary that 460 voters who mailed their ballots missed the new deadline for those ballots to arrive by the time polls closed on Election Day.

“Election law changes almost every year, so it doesn’t allow voters to get used to the new laws because they keep changing the goal posts,” Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald said before the general election. “If people aren’t paying attention, they’re going to miss things.”

I heard often from voters over the past month that they normally voted by mail but would not risk it this year. My mom might have requested an absentee ballot if there had been more time to return it. Some of those voters cast ballots early. Others may have planned to vote on Election Day but ran into unforeseen circumstances.

I imagine that result was exactly what the authors of the new law had in mind. Iowa didn’t have a red wave – it was a red tsunami that left Republicans controlling all of Iowa’s federal offices, and all but one statewide executive office (the auditor’s race was still facing recounts). The GOP now has a supermajority in the Iowa Senate and more than 60 seats in the House.

Given the success for Republicans, get ready for legislative proposals to cut early voting to 15 days, or maybe to do away with it entirely. If less voting means more Republicans are elected, that is what Iowa will have.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the length of time since the Iowa House GOP had more than 60 members. The last time was in the mid-1990s.

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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.

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