Government

As midterm elections near, Iowa voting law changes

State vows appeal after parts of voter ID law put on hold

Cedar Rapids residents vote early at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, October 14, 2014. The voting station was setup for the day after undergraduate students at Mount Mercy submitted a petition to the Linn County Auditor’s Office with the 100 signatures required. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids residents vote early at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, October 14, 2014. The voting station was setup for the day after undergraduate students at Mount Mercy submitted a petition to the Linn County Auditor’s Office with the 100 signatures required. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

Only months from when voting in the midterm elections could begin, Iowa’s election rules — already in the midst of a transition to more stringent voter ID regulations — are changing again, at least for now.

But while lawmakers and advocates debate whether Wednesday’s injunction to provisions in Iowa’s new voter ID law helps or harms the election process, some county auditors are concerned the latest change of rules further muddies the water for a public already lukewarm on turning out at the polls.

“It creates confusion and anytime we create confusion, there’s a likelihood that somebody is not going to vote,” Linn County Auditor Joel Miller said. “It takes one little thing like that and you’ve created a potential decline in voter turnout.”

One of the biggest questions for voters, following the court’s injunction, is what changed and what didn’t.

Polk County District Judge Karen Romano’s injunction in a lawsuit filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa changes only three provisions of the 2017 voting law:

l The early voting period for the November midterm election was restored from 29 to 40 days.

l Absentee voters are not required to provide an ID number on applications for absentee ballots.

l County auditors are barred from rejecting an absentee ballot if they believe a voter’s signature doesn’t match the signature on record.

The injunction affecting those provisions remains in effect until the entire lawsuit is adjudicated.

In making her ruling, Romano said she found the law would “substantially and directly interfere with Iowans’ constitutional rights to vote.”

Joe Enriquez Henry, president of LULAC Council 307 in Des Moines, said that early voting simply will be back to the way it was before former Gov. Terry Branstad signed House File 516 in May 2017.

“We don’t see that much confusion coming from the regular voters; we see this as being recovered now,” Henry said. “We see this as being peace of mind.”

Rules for Election Day voting will not change as a result of the injunction. Voters going to the polls Nov. 6 will be asked to provide state-approved identification. Under rules in place for 2018 while the law is being phased in, those without proper ID can sign an oath verifying their identity and still vote.

But starting next year, proper identification will be required for all.

Approved identification includes an Iowa driver’s license, an Iowa non-operator ID card, a U.S. passport, a U.S. military ID, a U.S. veteran ID or an Iowa voter ID PIN card. Those with an out-of-state license — like college students — can present those IDs but still must have proof of residency.

While Henry said he expects to see LULAC take on the remainder of Iowa’s voter ID law in a future lawsuit, Secretary of State Paul Pate said his office will fight the injunction.

“We are appealing this decision to the Iowa Supreme Court. We have consulted with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office and will continue to educate voters about the election law changes as we have done all year. My goal is to protect the integrity of the vote while ensuring no eligible Iowan is turned away from the polls,” Pate said Thursday.

Miller said absentee ballot affidavits and documents for the Sept. 11 Linn-Mar school district special election already have been printed with language indicating identification number is required, meaning they are no longer valid.

Miller said the office is looking at ways to amend the documents to avoid reprinting, which he estimated to be up to $10,000.

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Miller said staffing should not be drastically impacted by the expansion of early voting back to 40 days.

Supporters of Iowa’s voter ID rule said it is needed to protect the integrity of the state’s elections and modernize its election system. Critics argued the law adds an unnecessary layer to voting and could suppress turnout by discouraging some people, particularly elderly and minority voters without driver’s licenses, from voting.

Democrats also have argued that shortening the early voting window targets their party, which tends to have higher turnout in absentee ballots than the GOP.

In the 2016 general election, more than 265,000 Democrats — about 52 percent of total Democratic votes cast — voted absentee. A little more than 224,000 Republicans — less than 39 percent of all GOP votes cast — voted absentee, according to state data.

l Comments: (319) 398-8309; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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