Iowa legislative panel approves overseas voting plan for special elections

Decision renews debate about secretary of state mailing absentee ballot requests

State Sen. Jack Whitver speaks to the media in March 2018 at the Iowa Capitol. Whitver, the Senate majority leader, on W
State Sen. Jack Whitver speaks to the media in March 2018 at the Iowa Capitol. Whitver, the Senate majority leader, on Wednesday defended the new law requiring the secretary of state to gain Iowa Legislative Council approval before changing the rules of an election, as in sending absentee ballots requests to Iowa voters before an election. (The Gazette)

The Iowa Legislative Council unanimously approved an emergency directive to give Iowans living overseas the option of returning ballots electronically for July 7 special elections, but not without first returning to a partisan debate lawmakers had in the final hours of their June session.

The approval was needed because of a change legislators made in House File 2486 requiring the Secretary of State to get the council’s approval before changing the conduct of an election during an emergency, such as the coronavirus pandemic.

The global pandemic has disrupted international mail distribution, raising concerns that Iowans living abroad, including those serving in the armed forces, could not receive and return ballots on the usual timeline, according to Secretary of State Paul Pate. The directive is identical to a provision in one of Pate’s emergency directives for the June 2 primary.

The July 7 special elections covered by the council’s action Wednesday include filling vacancies on the Cedar Falls City Council and the Woodbury County Board of Supervisors.

Although the secretary’s directive was approved 22-0, the panel of 24 legislative leaders split along party lines when Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, offered an amendment to have the secretary use federal CARES Act funds to send an absentee ballot request form to every registered voter ahead of the November general election.

Pate sent the forms ahead of the June 2 primary as part of election officials’ effort to encourage Iowans to vote by absentee ballot rather than in person to help reduce the possibility of spreading COVID-19.

Jochum called the primary a “test run (that) proved quite successful,” with the highest turnout in Iowa primary election history. The 531,131 ballots cast broke the 1994 primary election record of 449,490 votes.


Sending the absentee ballot requests to voters gives them a choice to vote by mail or go to a polling station to cast their vote in person, Jochum said.

“I don’t think we should put people in a position to choose between their health and exercising their right to cast a vote,” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, agreed the primary was successful, but said Jochum’s amendment was a “false choice” because the secretary of state is not the only source of absentee ballot requests.

“Pretty much every campaign that I know is sending one out, (and) many county auditors are sending out” absentee ballot requests and several have announced to do that before the general election, he said.

“So I think there’s a lot of scare tactics going on like the Legislature is preventing people from voting absentee,” he said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. I have full confidence there’s going to be an abundance of absentee ballot requests in people’s mailboxes this fall.”

Whitver said, to his knowledge, the secretary of state has not sent absentee ballot requests in the past, “so we have not changed anything regarding the current practice.”

Whether the secretary of state — the state’s top elections officials — should send out the requests is a conversation for another day, Whitver said.

The Legislature and secretary “can have a bigger conversation about that, but I don’t believe that we need two different government entities sending out absentee ballots,” he said. “I think it needs to be more coordinated.”

Jochum’s amendment failed, 13-9.


Democrats also argued, as they did when HF 2486 was approved, that the change hamstrings the secretary. They said the Legislative Council will become a “babysitting club” for the secretary’s office if it has to meet every time there is a special election. Several are scheduled before the Nov. 3 general election.

Whitver said the Senate version of the bill, passed on a 30-19 party line vote, called for the council to weigh in only if it disagreed with a decision made by the secretary. However, a bipartisan amendment in the House, where the bill was approved, 97-0, changed that to require council approval before the secretary could make a change.

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