116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author and do not represent the views or opinions of the Linn County Auditor’s Office.
A year and a half ago, the state Legislature made a series of changes to Iowa’s early voting laws. Iowans who participated in last year’s city and school district elections have already cast votes according to those updated rules. On Wednesday, the early voting period will commence for the first general election since Senate File 413 was signed into law, and your friendly neighborhood opinion columnist will be pulling double duty and participating as a temporary early voting worker.
My responsibilities working early voting give me a little bit more insight into the voting process than the typical voter, or even the typical Precinct Election Official, which serves voters on Election Day. Wednesday will mark the eighth voting period that I have served as an early voting worker, and because of the experiences I’ve had in the role I love so much, I always have thoughts whenever legislators tweak Iowa’s voting laws. The new rules, signed into law in March 2021, leave me with mixed feelings.
Generally, I’ve been supportive of the changes made to the voting process since Republicans gained a trifecta in the state legislature beginning with the 2017 legislative session, such as requiring a valid ID at the polls. Voter ID is not only reasonable in my opinion, it’s also necessary to ensure the integrity of such an important process. Voter ID is not about catching fraud, but about preventing it. Supporters of ID requirements tend to posit that even one fraudulent vote can taint the process.
I agree. A single improperly cast vote can change the outcome of an entire election. Readers can have a field day with that statement using a variety of contexts and hypotheticals, but I’ll use a literal example to illustrate my point: In a 2017 state election in Virginia, a recount of the results in a race that would determine which party controlled the Virginia House of Delegates found an exact tie between Republican David Yancey and Democrat Shelly Simonds in District 94. The winner of the race was chosen by drawing a name out of ceramic bowl made by a local potter. One illicit vote could have changed not only the outcome of the race, but control of the entire legislative chamber.
That effect works both ways. Just as an improperly cast vote can change the outcome of an election, an improperly rejected one can as well. Some voters who vote by mail may need to be extra mindful of the updated rules to ensure their ballots aren’t rejected due to the shortened early voting time frame, which has been reduced from 29 days to 20. It’s the main source of my ambivalence over the 2021 voting law changes — I don’t hate it, but I certainly don’t love it.
Voter habits vary in the state of Iowa, which doesn’t require a reason to vote by mail. Almost 28,000 voters in Linn County opted to vote by mail during the 2018 general election. Some surely chose that method out of nothing more than personal preference, but many did so out of necessity, such as difficulty leaving their homes or temporarily living out of town for work or school. 20 days is usually enough time for a voter to receive, complete and return their ballot through the mail, but should the ballot be rejected, a tighter time frame now exists to replace it.
Iowa Administrative Code outlines several causes for a mail ballot to be rejected. (These procedures were prescribed long before the recent law change.) A voter could, despite explicit instructions enclosed with their ballot, forget to sign the legally required affidavit on the outside of the envelope. An envelope received by a county auditor’s office that is open in any way, or has been opened and resealed, would be rejected. Envelopes containing more than one ballot are rejected, so if two well-meaning spouses fill out their ballots together and place them in the same envelope, both would be disqualified.
Even with a longer early voting period, it’s never guaranteed that enough time will exist to resolve any errors that arise in the mail balloting process. Elections office staff will exhaust every possible option to work with voters to resolve those issues, but several factors can affect the voter’s ability to receive a replacement ballot: When the voter mailed the rejected ballot back, the voter’s ability to travel to the office in person, and speed of the mail service if they can’t. Rejections happen regardless of the length of the early voting period, but shaving nine days off adds additional pressure should a mistake occur.
The 2021 law cemented that 20-day period firmly by removing the ability to review a postmark on a mailed ballot. Previously, a ballot could be received as late as noon on the Monday after the election and would still count as long as the postmark or barcode confirmed that it was sent no later than the day before the election. Now, only ballots sent under two circumstances will be granted postmark flexibility: Those from participants in the Secretary of State’s Safe At Home program for domestic abuse victims and overseas voters casting ballots through the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, or UOCAVA. Every other mail ballot must be received at the local county auditor’s office by 8 p.m. on Election Day in order to count — period.
It is my opinion that the truncated time frame and the rigid deadline could add some pressure for voters wishing to vote by mail. That being said, were these changes implemented with the express intent of suppressing votes, as Democrats have claimed? No. Republicans could use their legislative majority to implement much more severe balloting restrictions, such as eliminating same-day voter registration or eliminating at-will absentee voting. They didn’t, even though such changes would reflect long-standing voting policy in some Democrat-run states. Deep blue Rhode Island, for example, requires registration no later than 30 days prior to an election to be eligible to vote. Notably, their early voting period is the same 20 days to which Iowa just reduced its own. Connecticut, also a blue state, allows absentee voting under only six unique circumstances. Like Iowa’s new law, Connecticut requires all absentee ballots be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day with no postmark exceptions.
So, Iowa’s new voting law isn’t done out of malice, but yes, it will require a bit of an adjustment. The best way for voters to avoid hiccups is to treat their vote as not just something they do, but that they plan. I may not be wild about the change in the early voting time frame, but if it motivates voters to be more intentional in choosing their method of voting, that might, ironically, cause me to start liking it.
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