A voter suppression bill is on its way to the desk of Governor Kim Reynolds less than a week after being introduced, and following a contentious debate pointing out the numerous ways it will curb access to early voting.
Iowa is one of dozens of states with proposed legislation to make early voting and voting by mail more difficult after record turnout in the 2020 general election.
The final proposal includes measures that would shorten the amount of time people have to vote early (both in requesting absentee ballots and in returning them), impose criminal penalties on auditors who don’t follow the new law, limit the number of ballot drop-boxes to one per county and restrict an auditor’s ability to set up satellite voting centers.
The bill was fast-tracked through the legislature, and critics argue that was done to avoid public scrutiny. Both chambers passed the legislation through subcommittee and committee meetings last week, and the Senate and House passed it within the last two days.
The proposed bill was the subject of a public hearing Monday evening, and Iowans had the opportunity to submit public comments and to speak, with more than one thousand signing up in opposition, and less than twenty supporting the law.
House Public Hearing
Those who commented in person predominantly asked what problem this bill solves and pointed out the problems it would introduce.
Pat Gill, the auditor for Woodbury County, took the opportunity to talk about the risk election officials will take for reporting errors. Auditors and other election officials could face fines and criminal prosecution for failure to uphold guidance from the Secretary of State and for failing to maintain voting records, according to language in the bill.
Gill explained that any error could be interpreted as being an election official’s fault, making the Secretary of State the judge and jury in those situations.
“I was willing to risk receiving a letter of technical infraction in order to prevent it happening again,” Gill said about reporting errors to the current Secretary of State. “In the future, auditors who are put in the same position may face a vindictive Secretary.”
Gill also said the bill wouldn’t prevent any of the types of errors he’s actually seen.
Those in favor of the bill said their support was based on the idea of keeping Iowa’s elections secure, and were outraged that anyone opposes this bill.
One man, Ken Smith with the Association of Mature American Citizens, said voting should be difficult, though he didn’t explain why.
“Our form of government is not easy. It’s not supposed to be easy. We’re supposed to work at being responsible citizens,” he said.
But the majority of people talked about how this bill would negatively affect the elderly, the disabled, non-English speakers, people in abusive relationships and people whose families don’t live in the state (but who would need help with their absentee ballots).
The overwhelming affect they talked about was an ultimate decrease in the number of people who would end up casting a ballot.
County auditors spoke to a lot of those concerns, and how they manage and interact with the election process and Iowa voters every election year.
They also talked about how this bill would make their jobs harder, because of the postal service or the people who need more help in obtaining, filling out and turning in their absentee ballots.
There was also a lot of talk about what voter suppression means and whether this bill meets that definition.
Overwhelmingly, supporters said it was a dramatic, inflammatory word for a bill that seeks to “protect the vote” from fraud.
“I want to repeat what I repeated in the subcommittee that this bill is about election integrity,” said Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, a Republican for District 73.
He said the real voter suppression is having people doubting the process.
“There are thousands upon thousands of Iowans that do not have faith in our election systems,” Kaufmann said.
Out of the dozens of speakers, only a handful spoke in support of the bill. Online comments also show a vast majority of Iowans oppose these changes, and point out that state officials haven’t raised any concerns about the security of the 2020 election.
Many comments claim the bill seeks to solve problems that don’t exist.
“If you listen to the testimony tonight, you heard the majority of the folks who testified asking us to rethink this, to slow down,” Rep. Mary Mascher, a Democrat for District 86, said. “This has been fast-tracked and that usually occurs when the majority party decides they want to push something through quickly without people being able to fully understand what is actually in the bill.”
Tuesday afternoon, the full Senate debated the Senate version of the bill, SF 413. It passed 30-18, but not after more than two hours of floor debate.
Most of the time was taken by Democrats, who raised specific issues, but also addressed the idea that Iowans lack faith in our elections and that there was fraud in the 2020 election in Iowa.
That belief, Sen. Joe Bolkcom said, is fueled only by propaganda from right-wing conservatives and some Republicans, not by facts.
He pointed toward what happened in Iowa in November 2020 as one piece of evidence.
“Our Republican Secretary of State, Paul Pate, said it best about the November general election: ‘Record turnout during a pandemic is an amazing achievement. And overall, the process went very smoothly in Iowa,’” Bolkcom said.
Then he said, with all of that, there have been no claims of fraud in Iowa.
“If the election was fraudulent in Iowa, I’ve not heard a single member of the legislature show us the fraud. Where is it?” he said. “Was there fraud in the US Senate race? Was there fraud in our state House or state Senate races? How about in our county races?”
Sen. Claire Celsi connected this bill to Republican efforts across the country to change election laws. She also accused many of buying into the idea that the 2020 election was somehow riddled with widespread fraud.
Many Democrats said it’s a shame that Iowa, a state that’s often been on the leading edge of expanding voting rights, is following suit.
In 1990, Iowa adopted no-excuse mail voting. Just last year, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an executive order allowing former felons to vote.
Instead of helping Iowans move past the idea of election fraud and helping them understand and embrace the new administration, Celsi said Senate Republicans are pursuing “cookie cutter” voter suppression tactics.
Sen. Jim Carlin, a Republican from District 3, illustrated her point by saying he believes the last election was fraudulent.
He said he can’t believe that President Biden found a different path to success then former presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama.
At every turn, Democrats’ concerns—big or small—were dismissed as talking points or as illegitimate. Every amendment but one was defeated 30-18.
Sen. Pam Jochum, a Democrat for District 50 and the last speaker before closing remarks, focused on democracy itself.
“Election law defines the rights of voters as a democracy. You weaken the rights of voters, you weaken the democracy. You strengthen the rights of voters, you strengthen the democracy” -Senator Pam Jochum
“Election law defines the rights of voters as a democracy. You weaken the rights of voters, you weaken the democracy. You strengthen the rights of voters, you strengthen the democracy,” she said.
Jochum also called for an end to lying about the results of the last election, and pointed out that integrity, election or otherwise, is about honesty.
“This is your chance today to stand up for democracy, to protect the most fundamental of all our constitutional rights. It all starts with voting,” she said.
House of Representatives
In the House, representatives replaced HF 590 with SF 413 to bring the two bodies together on one piece of legislation. It passed 57-37.
Over an hour into the session, the discussion on the bill itself started, and arguments ran along the same lines they did in the Senate.
Again, Democrats took up most of the time, giving examples of potential downsides, reading comments and email from constituents and picking apart the logic of the bill.
Several representatives brought up the numbers from the last election, including turnout and the number of people who voted absentee, and said they show both a lack of fraud and a lack of distrust in Iowa’s elections.
Rep. Monica Kurth pointed out that Iowa’s three fraudulent ballots out of millions in 2020 still puts the state well below the already-low national average.
An MIT scholar put the number of ballots that resulted in any criminal convictions at 0.0006 percent.
“There is statistically no fraud in Iowa elections,” she said. “I’m sure you’ve all heard the old saying, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Well, it ain’t broke.”
One of the main points the Democrats returned to was the number of Iowans who have asked that the legislature not pass this bill.
Rep. Sharon Steckman read some comments from the public hearing the House had Monday. Of the hundreds of comments submitted, only around 20 were in favor.
“I thought we were the people’s house, I thought we were here to do the people’s business,” she said. “The written comments and the public comments at the public hearing were overwhelmingly against this bill, not for it. And I thought we were supposed to listen to the people that elected us.”
The discussion in the House of Representatives began with amendments proposed by Democrats that would adjust the existing language to soften it.
One, proposed by Rep. Mary Wolfe, would, in her and other Democrats’ words, remove the negative parts of the bill and keep the neutral or beneficial aspects.
Another, proposed by Rep. Bruce Hunter, would have added new language to the bill that would expand the number of people who can vote, make it easier or more efficient and adjust the counting of ballots.
Among other things, it would have introduced automatic voter registration, allowed people to request an absentee ballot just once for every election until they decided to change that, added new forms of ID people can use when voting and allow auditors to start counting absentee ballots ahead of time but not publish the results.
Rep. Mary Mascher said it represented the changes Iowa voters actually want to see.
Both amendments failed.