Government

Iowa House approves changes to limit secretary of state emergency powers

House GOP would set process for sending absentee ballot requests

The House chamber at the State Capitol Building in Des Moines. (The Gazette)
The House chamber at the State Capitol Building in Des Moines. (The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — The Iowa House approved changes Thursday to allow state commissioners of elections to mail absentee ballot requests to registered voters during an emergency if a legislative panel gives its consent.

After Gov. Kim Reynolds declared a public emergency because of the coronavirus pandemic, Secretary of State Paul Pate mailed absentee ballot requests to registered voters ahead of the state’s June 2 primary election, which broke turnout records.

While that was popular with many Iowans, including legislators, House State Government Chairman Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said the changes approved 95-2 in House File 2486 were necessary to prevent Pate’s actions from being the model for all future emergency elections.

“Common-sense constraints” on the secretary’s emergency authority are “sorely needed,” he said.

The governor’s emergency powers “are expressly permitted, have a time limit and a legislative override,” he said, but the secretary of state’s “are too vague to even be anything resembling predictable.”

The amendment he offered with Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines, was a compromise between current law and the Senate-passed ban on the secretary mailing absentee ballot requests before an election.

Although Pate’s actions were praised by both political parties — Pate is a Republican — Kaufmann said requiring approval by the Legislative Council before mailing the ballot requests would prevent “one individual from having unchecked power to change election law.”

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The Kaufmann-Hunter amendment was in response to the Senate version of the bill that allowed county election officials, campaigns and political parties to mail absentee ballot requests with the approval of their county supervisors, but prohibited the secretary of state from doing the same.

“What he did was legal,” Kaufmann said about Pate’s decision to mail the requests and to extend the absentee voting period beyond the 29 days in current law. But it was not responsible because of the precedent it set.

“It sets a precedent that what you liked this time ... when the absentee ballot deadline was extended from 29 to 40 days,” Kaufman said.

Left unchecked, the secretary could just as easily reduce absentee voting from 29 to five days.

“We think that’s important no matter who’s secretary of state, that one person shouldn’t have the authority to make such significant elections changes without the Legislature’s involvement,” Kaufmann said.

The amendment would require that secretary of state, when making changes under emergency powers, to go before the Legislative Council. The council could approve or reject the plan or come up with its own plan.

The Legislative Council is a 20-member “steering committee” of legislators that acts when the full Legislature is not in session. It includes leaders, senior members and chairmen and ranking minority party members of various committees.

In the Senate, House File 2486 passed 30-19 with only Republican votes. Two Republicans voted against it.

House Republicans made it “loud and clear” they didn’t agree with the Senate version and wanted “a bipartisan effort ... to show the people that we can come together and have a bipartisan legislation that expands voting rights,” Kaufmann said.

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If the Senate concurs, HF 2486 also includes numerous other elections changes, including a limit on the extent to which local elections officials can reduce the number of polling locations during an emergency and a requirement that voters complete verification information on absentee ballot request forms.

It also addresses the election of Democratic and Republican presidential electors — the people who cast Iowa’s Electoral College cotes — to require them to pledge to mark their ballots for the party that nominated them.

Smoking age to 21

Also Thursday, the House approved SF 2268 that would conform Iowa code to a new federal law by raising the legal smoking age to 21.

In January, the federal government made it illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21. The previous limit was 18. The change previously was approved by the Senate, 43-6.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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