Bills tackle election ‘fraud’ after county auditors see hundreds of ballot challenges

By: - February 24, 2023 4:09 pm

Carroll County voters mark their ballots for the 2022 primary election. (Photo by Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Republicans are moving forward with changes to Iowa’s election registration and recount systems following allegations of election fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

Activists called for better maintenance of Iowa’s voter registration rolls during the 2022 midterm elections, with county auditors receiving hundreds of voter registration challenges. Currently, Iowans can only challenge registrations in the county where they reside. One of the bills discussed in the Iowa Senate’s State Government subcommittee meeting Thursday, Senate File 351, would let Iowans challenge registrations in any county.

Speakers at a subcommittee meeting Thursday told lawmakers they challenged voter registrations in their home counties in an attempt “clean up” voter rolls by removing people who remain on the voter rolls who had moved or died. Michael Bayer from Waterloo said he and other activists challenged registrations to ensure only eligible voters are participating in Iowa’s elections.

“You have to understand that every ineligible voter on the voter rolls is opportunities for bad actors to request absentee ballots in that voter’s name,” Bayer said. “And that is what we as activists are interested in doing, in helping the county commissioners and their job to keep clean voter rolls.”

Concerns about election fraud increased following the 2020 presidential election when former President Donald Trump claimed fraud cost him the election against President Joe Biden. Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate reassured voters in the lead-up to the 2022 election that Iowa’s elections were secure and fair, though some activists said Iowa’s voter rolls were not properly maintained.

Jamie Cashman of the Iowa State Association of County Auditors said auditors were concerned that the proposal has no limits on how many registration challenges one person can submit — which means an individual could file thousands of challenges across the state, adding massive workloads to county auditor offices.

“Auditors have grave concerns that groups of activists from one county … would have basically an endless blanket of requests to other counties,” Cashman said. “Thus taxing the auditors and the many duties that they’re already dealing with an election time.”

Sen. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville, said lawmakers should be supporting the people filing these challenges, and ensuring that only eligible voters are registered in Iowa.

“I think having people that care enough about our vote, to go to all the work and all the trouble to clean it up, I think they should be thanked and applauded, and every Iowan owes them a debt of gratitude,” Salmon said. “So I appreciate the work that’s been done, I’ve seen it and it definitely makes us know that we have some more work to do to make sure our elections are as fraud-free as possible.”

In Black Hawk County, all but two of the 570 registrations challenged in 2022 were for inactive voters, the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported. When a voter does not participate in two consecutive elections, their registration is automatically cancelled under current Iowa law.

In the Iowa House, lawmakers also discussed changes to voter registration challenges. House File 356, introduced by Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, adds requirements that the voter must include their driver’s license number or four-digit voter number on the absentee ballot submitted by mail or in-person, information that’s already required to request a ballot. The additional requirement is another step that  Kaufmann said would enhance election integrity.

People challenging registrations would be required to post a bond covering the cost of verifying the challenged voter’s registration. The bond would be returned to the challenger if the voter’s registration is deemed invalid. If the challenged voter is shown to be legitimate, the bond money would go to the county.

County officials told Kaufmann the influx of challenges has added a significant financial burden to county auditors, and the provision means people filing these registration challenges have “some skin in the game.”

“I’m trying to thread the line between making sure that people have the ability to object and challenge, while also ensuring that auditors are able to do their job free of very large financial obligations stemming from challenges,” Kaufmann said.

The House legislation could up for debate by the full House after approval by a subcommittee Wednesday and the State Government Committee Thursday.

Senate bills target possible voter fraud

The other bills discussed Thursday would also put new requirements on records maintained by election officials. Senate File 341 would have the State Commissioner of Elections create a record of the voter registration database of all participants in an election.  County Commissioners of Elections create logs of all ballots cast, with information on which candidates were selected, with no identifiable voter information. Both of those records could be requested at no cost.

Opponents of the legislation said even while keeping a person’s identity secret, providing people with records of where, and for whom, a vote was cast could compromise voters’ right to cast a secret ballot. But Salmon said providing this information would allow observers to identify “ballot dumps” and other instances of fraud.

“If there’s a series of ballots all for the same candidate or a series of ballots all for one candidate but not any for any other races, those are all red flags that could help us detect maybe where we need to investigate,” Salmon said.

Senate File 342 proposes that Iowans registering to vote on Election Day cast provisional ballots, requiring a special board to verify the voter’s identity a second time before their vote is counted.

All three of the bills would add significant burdens to county election officials during already busy election seasons, lobbyists with county auditors said. Cashman said the provisional ballot requirement not only means county officials will take on unnecessary additional work, it will create a wider gap between unofficial and official results.

“I don’t know of any higher rates of fraud that we’ve ever seen coming from same-day registration,” Cashman said.

Sen. Janice Weiner, D-Iowa City, said Iowa’s current election system already has a thorough identity verification process — made stricter through voter-ID laws passed by Republicans in 2017 — and that election workers already conduct audits to ensure votes are counted correctly.

“Hand-counting would be incredibly laborious and time consuming,” Weiner said. “I can tell you that as someone who worked as a poll worker and served on a bipartisan team in 2020.”

Weiner said she wasn’t sure what problem this bill is trying to address, saying Iowa already has free and fair elections. But Salmon said there’s no way under current law for officials to go back and strike a ballot cast by an ineligible voter for same-day registration ballots.

“Right now, the way it is, they count the ballot and then later find out — well, maybe they find out — it’s not a legitimate voter, and then there’s no way for them to retrieve that ballot,” Salmon told the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

All three of the bills advanced to the Senate State Government Committee.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.