Guest Columnists

Iowa's so-called voter ID bill is about much more than voter ID.

Adam Sullivan, At Liberty

The Iowa Senate soon will take up a House-approved bill that would require voters to show identification at their polling places. Some form of voter ID seems destined for approval by the legislature this year, but many of the specifics and a long list of other election reforms are still up for debate.

News headlines call House File 516 a voter ID bill because it’s short and simple, but lawmakers aren’t calling it that. The Republicans call it “election integrity,” and the Democrats call it “voter suppression.” The legislation’s abnormally long subtitle lists a dozen items that it touches, including polling place prohibitions, polling place technology, election audits, and straight party voting.

Like many fellow Republicans, I’m skeptical about the methodology of the studies that find voter fraud is nearly zero, and I think the vast majority of voters will still be able to vote with voter ID laws in place. However, I don’t see any evidence that voter fraud is widespread or likely to swing elections — lengthy and costly investigations have turned up few charges.

Secretary of State Paul Pate is correct when he says one instance of voter fraud is too many, but one instance of voter disenfranchisement is also too many. In practice, freedom is sometimes messy — neither fraud nor disenfranchisement are likely to ever reach zero.

Voter ID is estimated to be a $1 million solution to an imagined crisis. But since I’m a pragmatic dissident and a radical incrementalist, I’m still hopeful that some positive reforms can make their way into HF 516.

My favorite is a provision to eliminate straight-ticket voting in Iowa. Both parties have traditionally supported straight-ticket voting, but eliminating it has slowly gained some Republican support over the past few years.

State Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, proposed an amendment this week to keep the straight-ticket option in place, saying it offers a convenience for voters, especially those who are elderly or have limited mobility.


“Why would you take that option away from someone? People can still go through and fill in every oval if they choose,” Mascher, my own state representative, told me this week.

That rationale seems well intentioned, but Iowa polling places already have a system of bipartisan poll watchers who can assist voters upon request and even provide curbside ballots.

Straight-ticket voting is one small part of a larger web of laws that protect the major parties by limiting the success of third-party and no-party candidates. I have no plans to change my party registration or to leave Republican politics, but I acknowledge that the Republicans and Democrats have built unfair barriers for alternative candidates.

It seems like legislators from both parties tend to support the things they think will make it easier for their people to vote, or harder for the other side. Still, just because both sides are politically motivated doesn’t mean no best choice exists.

If voter ID will pass the legislature this year, let’s minimize any potential damages to our election system. Eliminating the straight-ticket would be a small step forward for fair elections, even if political reality insists that it be paired with a step backward.

• Adam Sullivan’s column appears on Fridays. Comments:;

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