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DES MOINES - Gov. Kim Reynolds on Monday signed into law sweeping legislation that will significantly alter Iowa's elections by reducing the number of days for early voting, restricting absentee voting and threatening county auditors with fines and jail time if they break the new requirements.
The legislation was rushed through the lawmaking process by majority Republicans who introduced it and passed it in just over a week with only GOP support.
Aspects of the new law, Senate File 413, are similar to those being forged in dozens of Republican-controlled chambers nationwide that seek to clamp down on the voting methods that have mostly benefited Democrats. Although there is no evidence of systematic election fraud, lawmakers in 43 states are debating about 200 bills like Iowa's that would limit ballot access, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy group.
'What is unique about this year is the volume of bills we are seeing to restrict voting access and the brazenness of the efforts to go after methods of voting that are historically uncontroversial and popular with voters and clearly make it harder for people to cast ballots,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, a lawyer in the Brennan Center's Democracy Program.
Under Iowa's new law:
' Polls will close on Election Day one hour earlier than before, at 8 p.m. instead of 9 p.m.
' The number of days to vote early will decrease from 29 to 20. (Until two years ago, Iowa's early voting period had been 40 days.)
' Absentee ballots cannot be mailed to voters until 20 days before an election, down from 29 days, with limited exceptions.
' Local elections officials can mail out an absentee ballot request form only if the voter requests one first.
' There can be only one drop box per county for dropping off completed early ballots.
' Local elections officials can establish a satellite early voting location only if asked.
' Voters must return and submit their own sealed early ballot, with limited exceptions.
' Early ballots must be received by the county auditor by Election Day, not just postmarked before the election. With limited exceptions, early ballots that arrive after Election Day will not be counted, no matter when they were mailed.
' County auditors face stronger penalties, including the possibility of a Class D felony, for violating elections laws.
Under the new law, Iowa's early voting window is shortened to just under the national average. However, the shortened time in which absentee ballots can be mailed out to voters puts Iowa in the bottom handful of states.
'It's our duty and responsibility to protect the integrity of every election,” the Republican governor said in a statement. 'This legislation strengthens uniformity by providing Iowa's election officials with consistent parameters for Election Day, absentee voting, database maintenance, as well as a clear appeals process for local county auditors. All of these additional steps promote more transparency and accountability, giving Iowans even greater confidence to cast their ballot.”
The office of Iowa's top elections official, Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate, did not answer a question last week from The Gazette on whether he was advising the governor to sign or veto the measure.
His office issued a statement on his behalf:
'The Iowa Legislature makes the laws. It is our job as election officials to follow those laws. Iowa is consistently one of the top states in the nation for voter registration and participation and I'll keep striving to make us number one. My office will continue providing resources to help every eligible Iowan be a voter and understand any changes in election law. Our goal has always been to make it easy to vote, but hard to cheat.”
Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said the new law builds on Republican-led efforts that require voters to show identification.
'I applaud Gov. Reynolds and legislative Republicans for showing Iowans that the GOP is listening to their concerns and defending the integrity of our state's election system,” he said in a statement.
Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Ross Wilburn accused Republicans of attacking the democratic process.
'Iowans have always had a proud tradition of participating in the democratic process with accessible and secure elections,” Wilburn said in a statement. 'Today, Kim Reynolds and Iowa Republicans have made it more difficult for Iowans, especially seniors and those with disabilities, to be part of this process and have their voices heard.”
The Associated Press and Rod Boshart of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.