Government

Critics question need for more Iowa election rules

Secretary of State Paul Pate presses for law that requires state-approved ID

Voting machines in storage in January at the Linn County Elections Depot in southwest Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Voting machines in storage in January at the Linn County Elections Depot in southwest Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — The local officials who run Iowa’s elections say some of the changes proposed by Iowa’s secretary of state — in particular a requirement that voters provide state-approved identification at the polls — are unnecessary to address the infrequent voting issues that occur.

The Republican-led Iowa House last week approved legislation to establish multiple changes to Iowa’s elections.

Secretary of State Paul Pate proposed the changes, which he said are necessary to protect the integrity of the state’s election system and update election technology.

Pate and other proponents of the proposal concede Iowa has mostly clean elections with very few instances of fraud.

Pate, however, also has given examples of various voting issues that may have affected dozens, if not hundreds, of votes cast in recent Iowa elections. And Rep. Ken Rizer, a Republican from Cedar Rapids who shepherded the bill through the House, said more safeguards are needed to ensure confidence in elections.

“I’m very happy about where we’re at today in regards to Iowa’s role in elections. We are, by far, one of the leading states in any way you want to review it,” Pate told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier earlier this year. “Having said that, there are things that go on.”

In pushing for stronger election oversight, Pate has cited multiple voting issues in recent statewide elections, including 17 complaints involving double voting; improper registration and allegations of noncitizens voting; roughly a dozen absentee ballots that allegedly were cast in the wrong name; 41 felons whose voting rights had not been restored and who filled out ballots, five of which were counted before being caught; and 250 unreturned confirmations by people who registered to vote on Election Day.

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Pate’s proposal attempts to address those issues with various provisions, but perhaps the most unpopular — the voter ID requirement — is not needed to supplement safeguards already in place, according to county auditors.

Some of those elections officials join critics in expressing concerns it will depress voter turnout among the elderly, college students and minorities who do not already possess what would be approved identification.

The Iowa State Association of County Auditors is registered in opposition to the bill, which would have to pass the GOP-controlled Senate.

“Secretary Pate’s bill has many salutary aspects; however, I feel it errs in calling for voter identification at the polls,” Karen Showalter, elections manager for Black Hawk County, wrote in an email. “Virtually no problems resulting from voter impersonation have been recorded, so any effect this can have in improving election integrity is negated a thousandfold by the effect it will have of jeopardizing the voting rights of populations whose access to the required identification is chronically or occasionally problematic.”

Roland Caldwell, with the Scott County Auditor’s Office, said requiring an identification card to vote is not necessary in order to cure registration irregularities, nor would it prevent all cases of double voting, which he said most often happens by absentee ballot and typically is caught by the current system.

“All of the voters in Scott (County) who have cast two ballots were caught prior to counting the ballots, their cases were investigated by our county attorney and sheriff offices and all of them had mild dementia or other memory impairments,” Caldwell wrote in an email. “None had an intent to vote twice.”

Caldwell said he thinks requiring identification to vote and requiring some ballots cast by voters who register on Election Day at polling locations without electronic poll books that can verify their registration is an overly burdensome way to address issues such as felons illegally casting ballots, given the low number of incidents.

“This seems like a lot of effort and inconvenience to non-felon voters to find the (small percentage) of voters who are also felons,” he said.

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The most frequent issue noted by Pate was the number of voters who had not yet confirmed their Election Day registration with the county auditor’s offices.

Pate and local elections officials said those irregularities typically do not indicate fraud, but rather a mistake or individuals being unaware of the responsibility.

“Our experience is that we have a very mobile population in Scott County and that people ignore their mail,” Caldwell said. “When the county attorney and sheriff have investigated those who have not returned their verifications, they have found that voters claim to have not received the notice or threw it out because they did not know what it was.”

Rizer said there is a perception among some voters that Iowa’s elections are not fair, and in defense of the proposal, he produced a letter from the League of Women Voters, which also is registered in opposition to the bill, that also expressed concern for a lack of voter confidence.

But Iowa had the nation’s fourth-highest electoral integrity rating in a 2016 survey of national elections experts conducted by the Electoral Integrity Project, an independent academic project based at Harvard University and the University of Sydney.

Rizer said he was not sure where the lack of confidence comes from.

“That’s a good question,” Rizer said.

Election integrity became a national topic of conversation during the 2016 presidential election, when then-candidate Donald Trump repeatedly made allegations of a “rigged” election system, and since winning has claimed without evidence that 3 to 5 million votes were cast illegally.

Pate acknowledged fraud is rare but said more oversight is justified.

“I don’t know what the number is that people want to hear before it rises to the level of, ‘Should we do more?’ In theory, one is too many,” Pate said. “And in fairness, we have had quite a few state legislative races that were won or lost by 50 votes. We have many school board and city council elections where you flip a coin. So, they’re pretty close.”

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