2019 LEGISLATIVE SESSION

New Iowa law adds assurance to mail-in ballots

Bar codes could quickly have settled election fracas

Joyce Tietz (left) and Colleen Andrews talk as they work on processing absentee ballot requests in a basement room at the Jean Oxley Public Service Center in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Joyce Tietz (left) and Colleen Andrews talk as they work on processing absentee ballot requests in a basement room at the Jean Oxley Public Service Center in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — A little-used technology that could have settled a disputed Northeast Iowa Statehouse race months earlier now will be required in every Iowa county under a measure signed into law Thursday by Gov. Kim Reynolds.

The new law requires that envelopes containing absentee ballots for Iowa elections have bar codes affixed under the direction of local elections officials that can provide mailing data.

The bar codes are intended to give officials the ability to tell whether mail-in ballots were posted before the deadline. Previously, placing a bar code on the envelopes was optional and only a handful of Iowa counties did so — even though the most common measure of when something was mailed, a postmark, isn’t applied to every envelope at the post office.

The lack of clarity created consternation in 2018 when the election for Iowa House District 55 was decided by just nine votes — and more than 20 absentee ballots were left uncounted because they arrived after Election Day. Election officials did not have any way outlined in Iowa law of determining if they were mailed on time.

In a dispute tossed by the courts to the Iowa House instead, majority Republicans rejected an appeal by Decorah Democrat Kayla Koether to count additional mail-in ballots. Her rival, Dorchester Republican Rep. Michael Bergan, the incumbent, was declared the winner.

The new law, House File 692, aims to prevent a similar occurrence. By requiring all envelopes with absentee ballots to include the bar code, elections officials will be able to tell if ballots that arrive after Election Day were actually mailed on time.

Some local officials and lawmakers wanted instead to simply require that all mail-in ballots arrive by Election Day. But that proposal lost out during negotiations between lawmakers during the legislative session.

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The election bill signed by Reynolds also clarifies that Iowans may participate in only one presidential precinct caucus per election cycle.

Democrats, in order to make their caucuses more accessible, have introduced a way for Iowans to participate online. That raised concerns that some voters might attempt to participate in both the upcoming Democratic and Republican caucuses.

During the session earlier this year, some lawmakers also wanted to close the polls for statewide elections at 8 p.m. instead of 9 p.m., ban public universities as early voting sites and make graduating college students’ registrations inactive if on a survey they said they planned to leave the state.

Those provisions were included in a bill that passed the Iowa Senate. But all were eliminated from the final version.

In other action, Reynolds signed legislation that will impose a new state fee for electric vehicle registration.

House File 764, which triggered some politically charged floor debates, adds a supplemental registration fee that, when fully phased in, will cost electric vehicle owners an additional $130 a year.

Backers said the goal is to maintain the Road Use Tax Fund that supports the construction and maintenance of Iowa roads and bridges.

Officials at the Iowa Department of Transportation have expressed concerned that as electric vehicle sales grow, federal and state motor fuel tax revenues that traditionally have supported transportation will continue to decline.

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Reynolds also signed House File 734, legislation improving access to DNA testing for Iowans trying to prove they were wrongfully convicted of crimes. Backers said Iowa had one of the most-restrictive laws in the nation, and there have been no DNA-based exonerations in the state.

HF 734 removes eligibility restrictions for post-conviction DNA testing. It also ensures that unknown profiles can be entered into law enforcement databases to potentially prove innocence and reveal the real perpetrators.

Also, Reynolds signed House File 590, a bill designed to strengthen consumer protections for taxpayers filing their annual returns. Backers say HF 590 stops “bad actors” and ensures basic competency.

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