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Linn and Johnson’s illegal ballot scheme must not be repeated
Feb. 24, 2021 6:00 am
The Iowa Legislature is considering bills that would change Iowa's election laws. Opponents of the bills have been quick to throw around the term 'voter suppression” and claim that the proposals are a threat to our democracy. But the truth is these bills are a needed response to abuses by election officials and simply place Iowa in the mainstream of laws governing absentee voting.
The last election season saw three Iowa county auditors decide that they didn't like how the Legislature had crafted election rules. These auditors, including Linn County Auditor Joel Miller and Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert, wanted to send absentee ballot request forms with the voter's personal information already filled out. This included the voter's identification number. This circumvented an election security measure and invited identity theft.
We know at least one voter got the wrong absentee ballot request form from Weipert's office - this could have led to a voter losing his right to vote because someone else got his ballot. The Iowa secretary of state told these auditors to not send the forms but they did it anyway.
Several Republican groups and President Donald Trump's campaign sued to make the auditors obey the secretary of state. Every judge that heard the case - every single one - agreed with the legal arguments put forward by the plaintiffs and ordered the auditors to not break the law. (Disclosure: In my private capacity I represented the plaintiffs that obtained the injunctions against the county auditors.)
Iowa legislators recognized that the actions of these three auditors meant that the laws needed to be strengthened. It shouldn't take someone going to court to sue to prevent a county auditor from breaking the law. The bills before the legislature make abundantly clear that what Miller and Weipert did cannot ever be repeated.
Neutrality in election law is vitally important. When county auditors tried to break the law by sending prepopulated absentee ballot request forms, they were distorting the process. As Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said at the time, not all Iowa counties had the financial or technical resources to send out prepopulated forms. And the prepopulated forms meant someone didn't have to do anything to identify himself before getting a ballot. Miller and Weipert tried to tip the scales of the election in the favor of their constituents and their own political party. This was unacceptable.
Absentee voting comes with consequences. Voters who cast their ballots early, for example, are deprived of the information that comes out late in the election season. Candidates might still be having debates long after many voters have cast a ballot. The legislature has to strike the appropriate balance between the value of access to absentee ballots and the value of an informed electorate.
The proposed legislation would put Iowa right in the middle of the pack among other states for the time periods for absentee voting. There is nothing radical here.
Saying these bills are 'voter suppression” is just name calling. The U.S. Supreme Court and the Iowa Supreme Court have both held that the right to vote is the right to cast a ballot on Election Day. The ways in which the Legislature grants access to absentee ballots enhances the right to vote, it does not suppress it. The Legislature is free to make needed changes to absentee voting without harming the right of any Iowan to vote.
Iowans have a very good election system today. This legislation will make it much better.
Alan Ostergren is president and chief counsel of the Kirkwood Institute, a nonprofit public-interest law firm.
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