Republicans on Thursday passed bills that would make sweeping changes to Iowa elections out of state House of Representatives and Senate committees, drawing objections from Democrats and voting rights advocates.
The near-identical bills would cut both the periods for in-person and mail-in early voting from 29 to 18 days. It had been 40 days before the Republican-controlled Legislature reduced it four years ago. The bills also would allow voters to request absentee ballots starting 70 days before an election — a 50-day reduction from the current 120 days.
The proposals would bar counties from mailing absentee ballot applications to voters, tightly regulate how absentee ballots can be returned and potentially reduce satellite early voting locations.
Many Republicans have said the new bills are meant to shore up public confidence after President Donald Trump and his GOP allies, without evidence, criticized the 2020 presidential election as fraudulent. Those claims were turned away by dozens of courts and were made even as a group of election officials deemed the 2020 presidential election “the most secure in American history.”
Iowa Democrats and voting rights advocates lambasted the bills.
State Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, who is on the Senate State Government Committee, spoke against the bill on the chamber floor Thursday.
“It is an attack on Iowa’s democracy, and it is disgusting,” she said. “Last year we had a record voter turnout, and the reason is because we made it more convenient and easier for Iowans to cast an early vote. … There were no credible complaints about our election security — not one. Not one.”
Iowa Sen. Carrie Koelker, R-Dyersville, also sits on the Senate State Government Committee and voted in favor of the bill. She said Iowans would still have many avenues to vote.
“This will limit voter remorse and hopefully the length of campaigning in the state and hopefully increase integrity and security,” she said. “No bill’s perfect. We all probably would have written this differently. But this bill maintains the compliance with the law. It brings transparency and accountability to the entire process.”
A record 1.7 million Iowa voters participated in the 2020 presidential election, equating to 76% turnout, and no major allegations of fraud have surfaced. Amid the pandemic, 1 million people voted absentee.
Under the bills, each county would be limited to one ballot drop box, which would be under video surveillance.
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 such as libraries and college campuses. Specific locations would be allowed if 100 voters signed a petition requesting them.
The bills declare that auditors would be required to follow guidance from Iowa’s secretary of state or be charged with felony election misconduct.
The bills now are eligible for floor debate as early as next week.
Among election officials in eastern Iowa, opposition to the legislation was bipartisan.
Delaware County Auditor Carla Becker, a Republican, said she did not understand the motivation for the bills and noted the reduction of the early-voting period four years ago.
“Now, they’re really shortening it,” she said. “ … That is problematic for the voters. I’m not looking at us and the work we would have to do, although that will be significant. I’m looking at the voter’s ability for access.”
Jenny Hillary, Dubuque County deputy commissioner of elections, also worried about voter access with a shorter early-voting window.
She said many elderly, disabled or otherwise immobile residents call in requesting an absentee ballot request form.
“If you call us because you don’t have a printer at home, we cannot mail you a form with this,” she said. “They’re trying to stop countywide mailings, but they’re restricting all counties from getting these to their voters.”
Hillary also bemoaned language in the bills that would keep auditors’ offices from establishing satellite polling places without a petition.
“We went out to Worthington, New Vienna, Holy Cross on a weekday or after church,” she said. “In Holy Cross, we had 104 people vote in 2020 at that satellite. Worthington had 92. New Vienna did 66. That’s not saying they couldn’t get a petition together necessarily, but it takes any discretion from us away to help them.”
Dubuque County Auditor Kevin Dragotto — a Democrat — called the legislation “backward in 18 ways.” In particular, he pointed to the ballot request form mailing prohibition.
“If our Board of Supervisors, who are elected by the citizens of Dubuque County, allocate money for that and I, an elected official, want to mail them out, how are we not speaking for the citizens of Dubuque County?” he asked.
The Iowa State Association of County Auditors, which represents elections commissioners in all 99 counties and has a Republican president, warned that the bill would remove local decision-making and create longer lines at polling places on Election Day and at remaining early voting sites.
The bill is also opposed by disability rights groups, American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, AARP, League of Women Voters of Iowa and labor unions.
Republicans have the votes to pass the bill without Democratic support, and Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signaled Wednesday that she was open to reducing mail and early voting opportunities.