IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Iowa’s Republican-controlled Legislature advanced a bill Wednesday to significantly limit voting by mail and early voting, threaten criminal charges against county auditors who depart from state election guidance and remove many inactive voters from the rolls.
The far-reaching bill would cut the mail and in-person early voting period from 29 to 18 days, after Republicans whittled it down from 40 days just four years ago. It would bar counties from mailing absentee ballot applications to voters, tightly regulate how absentee ballots can be returned and potentially cut many early voting locations.
Republicans praised the bill during a Senate subcommittee hearing, one day after its introduction. A House subcommittee was scheduled later Wednesday to consider the bill, which follows an election in which Iowa Republicans swept major races and that both parties said went smoothly despite the coronavirus pandemic.
Democrats and voting rights advocates called the changes anti-democratic and intended to cement the GOP's growing dominance in Iowa through voter suppression.
GOP Sen. Jason Schultz said the changes address “shady dealings” in heavily Black cities in swing states where voters helped President Joe Biden defeat Donald Trump. He repeated the false claim that election fraud cost Trump the election, which Trump lost by 7 million votes and 74 electoral college votes.
“When you don’t strengthen your election system, you allow people to game elections in cities such as Philadelphia,” Schultz said.
The Iowa State Association of County Auditors, which represents elections commissioners in 99 counties, warned the bill would take away local decision-making, threaten severe penalties against election workers who make mistakes and increase their staffing needs and workloads.
Voters would see longer lines at polling places on Election Day and at the remaining early voting sites, said Ryan Dokter, a Republican who is the group’s president and auditor in Sioux County, a GOP stronghold.
But with Republicans controlling the Legislature and governor's office, the prospects for stopping the changes appeared slim.
Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signaled she was open to reducing mail and early voting opportunities, calling the current 29-day window “a long period of time.” Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate, the state's election commissioner, said he respected the Legislature's role in writing election law. If they seek reelection, Pate and Reynolds will be on the ballot in 2022, when the new rules would be in effect.
A record 1.7 million Iowa voters participated in the 2020 presidential election, 76% turnout, and no major allegations of fraud have surfaced. With many seeking to avoid COVID-19 exposure at the polls on Election Day, 1 million people voted absentee by returning ballots through the mail, dropping them off, or casting them at early voting sites.
More than 80% of registered Democrats and 54% of registered Republicans who participated in the election did so through absentee voting, according to Iowa Secretary of State data. While Democrats won early voters, Republicans dominated among Election Day voters.
Under the bill, county auditors could not mail ballots to voters who had requested them until mid-October before a general election. Voters would have to drop them off by Election Day or put them in the mail the day before the election in order to count.
Each county would be limited to one ballot drop box, which would have to be under video surveillance. Only voters themselves, their household members or caretakers could return ballots, which would criminalize doing so by friends, neighbors or organizers.
Auditors would be barred from mailing applications for absentee ballots to voters, a practice credited with increasing participation during the pandemic. Instead, voters would have to obtain and submit applications themselves beginning 70 days before the election, instead of the current 120.
Counties would offer early voting during the 18-day period at their offices but would no longer have authority to set up satellite voting locations in places like libraries and college campuses. Specific locations would be allowed if 100 voters signed a petition requesting them.
The bill declares that auditors do not have “home rule” power to run elections, a principle of local control in the Iowa Constitution.
Instead, they would be required to follow guidance from Iowa's secretary of state — currently Pate — or be charged with felony election misconduct. Precinct or county officials could also face charges for interfering with election observers.
The secretary would be required to fine auditors up to $10,000 for any “technical infractions” issued to counties that do not comply with state law. The state could have workers observe counties for 60 days before elections to look for violations.
Pate last year reprimanded three county auditors for defying his guidance and mailing absentee ballot applications to voters that were prefilled with personal information such as addresses and dates of birth. Trump’s campaign sued to invalidate those applications, which required thousands of voters to submit new requests or vote in person.
Linn County Auditor Joel Miller, a Democrat and the elections commissioner in the state’s second-largest county, called the bill vindictive.
“It’s an affront to every county auditor in the state with a passion for creativity, election integrity and increasing voter turnout,” said Miller, who was was among those reprimanded by Pate.
The bill also would take several steps to remove voters who move, die or do not participate in elections from the voter registration list. The state could hire outside vendors to “identify ineligible voters on an ongoing basis.”