IOWA LEGISLATURE

Iowa Senate bars secretary of state from mailing absentee ballot requests

The ornamental decorations of the Iowa Capitol dome are in Des Moines. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
The ornamental decorations of the Iowa Capitol dome are in Des Moines. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — Iowa’s top elections official no longer would be permitted to mail absentee ballot request forms to voters unsolicited — a step taken this year ahead of the state’s June 2 primary election, which broke turnout records amid the coronavirus pandemic — under legislation approved Wednesday by Republicans in the Iowa Senate.

The legislation also includes myriad other election changes, including limiting the number of polling locations county auditors can close during an emergency and requiring voters to complete verification information on absentee ballot request forms.

The proposal also extends some deadlines to request absentee ballots, measures that had bipartisan support during Senate debate on the bill on Wednesday.

The time period in which individuals who are hospitalized can request an absentee ballot would increase from three days to 10 days, and individuals who fail to sign the envelope when returning their absentee ballot would be given a week after the election to rectify that.

During debate, Iowa Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, the bill’s manager, lashed out at Democrats who characterized the proposal as voter suppression as well as media that has reported on the legislation.

“Let me make this clear: This legislation does not ban or limit voters to cast an absentee ballot,” Smith said. “This bill is about security. This bill is to make sure someone’s vote is not erased by someone that is not legally allowed to vote. More people will vote under this bill.”

The proposal, an amendment to House File 2486 dealing with county seals, passed the Senate on a 30-19 vote with only Republican support.

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Two Republicans, Sens. Tim Kapucian of Keystone and Mark Lofgren of Muscatine, joined Democrats in opposing the amendment, which now heads to the Iowa House for its consideration.

Ahead of Iowa’s June 2 primary, Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, and local elections officials made a public push encouraging Iowans to vote by mail — through the state’s absentee ballot process. Their goal was to limit in-person voting on Election Day in an effort to limit potential spread of the coronavirus.

As part of that effort, Pate’s office mailed an absentee ballot request form to every registered Iowa voter.

The election broke state turnout records for a primary, with more than 530,000 votes cast — 420,000 of them via absentee ballots, according to state figures.

Smith’s proposal would prohibit the secretary of state from taking the same action during this fall’s general election or any other future election.

Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said the proposal would make it more difficult for Pate to manage this year’s general election if the coronavirus pandemic still presents a public health safety issue this fall.

“(Pate) acted responsibly,” Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, said during debate. ”He acted legally. So why are we slapping him in the face with this (bill)? … Why would we want to make it more difficult for people to access an absentee ballot, to access an absentee ballot in general?

“We should be celebrating the very fact that we had so many more people voting. … They voted because we made it easy?”

Smith said the measure is needed as a check on the secretary of state’s office.

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County elections officials, campaigns and political parties still would be permitted to mail absentee ballot request forms under the proposal. But county elections officials would need the approval of their county supervisors. Only the secretary of state would be prohibited.

“This is about the secretary of state. We have no checks and balances,” Smith said. “There needs to be checks and balances on elected officials.”

VIRUS BILL

Later Wednesday, the Senate planned to debate Senate File 2338, a proposal to provide legal protections to employers from lawsuits brought by workers who contract the new coronavirus.

Democrats have argued the proposal weakens protections for workers who may have contracted the virus because of unsafe workspaces.

Republicans have said the bill only protects businesses that have taken the proper steps to protect workers during the pandemic, and does not, as Democrats allege, shield so-called bad actors.

Comments: (563) 383-2492; erin.murphy@lee.net

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