DES MOINES — The Iowa Senate voted Tuesday to shorten Iowa’s early voting process to 20 days, close statewide election polls an hour earlier, condense absentee ballot rules and put in place tougher criminal penalties for “rogue” county auditors who fail to follow state rules.
Senate File 413 passed on a 30-18 party-line vote after a sometimes bruising floor debate in which majority Republicans defended the changes as efforts to improve and streamline Iowa’s voting process while minority Democrats panned the proposal as an effort to make it harder to participate and to suppress turnout among those who use early or absentee methods to vote.
“The 2020 election saw record turnout in this state and across the country. However, it did expose some serious vulnerabilities with election laws and enforcement,” said Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, chairman of the Senate State Government Committee and floor manager of the bill.
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“This bill creates uniform election procedures across all 99 counties, it clarifies that elective leaders have to uphold state and federal election laws and it continues to advance the integrity and security of Iowa’s elections,” Smith said.
With Senate passage, the bill now heads this week to the Iowa House. During a news conference last week, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds indicated she would be willing to consider the election changes rapidly making their way to her desk to sign into law.
Provisions of the bill, Smith said, were intended to address election misconduct, nomination requirements, absentee ballot voting, voter list maintenance requirements and election enforcement and authority with the goal of “making it easy to vote but hard to cheat.”
However, Democrats said Iowans proved the state’s voter process is working when more than 1.7 million Iowans participated in the record 2020 general election turnout, including more than a million Iowans who cast their votes early in person or by mail, seeking to avoid lines at the polls in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
They argued the bill is part of a national GOP effort to throw up election barriers over unfounded voter fraud allegations made by former President Donald Trump and his allies that were rejected by the courts.
“There was no fraud,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City. “The only thing that lacks integrity is this legislation. This is not the time to take us backwards. This radical bill is not needed. It’s an embarrassment.”
Sen. Jim Carlin, R-Sioux City, countered that “fraud is the worst kind of voter suppression” — asserting that 77% of Republicans believe there was fraud in the 2020 election and “most of us in my caucus, in the Republican caucus, believe the election was stolen.”
Under SF 413, Iowa’s early voting period would be reduced from 29 to 20 days and absentee ballots would have to be received back by the time polls close on Election Day, with a few exceptions.
The measure also would stop county auditors from sending out absentee ballots until mid-October; bar auditors from sending out absentee ballot request forms for any reason; bar anyone from returning an absentee ballot other than the voter or an immediate family member or care giver; allow only one drop box for early ballots per county that must be outside the auditor’s office; make it more difficult for auditors to establish satellite voting locations; and require the state attorney general to investigate all allegations of voter fraud presented to the office.
Other provisions create criminal penalties and fines for county auditors who fail to perform election duties, or to perform election duties “in such a way as to hinder or disregard the object of the law.”
“It’s not hard to vote. It is easy to vote in the state of Iowa,” said Sen. Zach Whiting, R-Spirit Lake. “This is a good bill. It’s good for election integrity.”
Democrats disagreed on all points.
“This bill makes it harder to vote. This is a voter suppression bill — period,” said Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines. “It’s like telling Iowa voters to stick their heads into a toilet while you flush it. This is not a good bill.”
Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said it’s curious Republicans are now taking issue with laws that basically were put in place under 10 years of GOP control of the governorship and Secretary of State’s office and their fifth year of legislative control.
Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, told his colleagues, “I’ve seen a lot of stuff that really stinks around here and this is right at the top of it. It’s a sad day for the Iowa Senate.”
Smith contends the bill is not radical despite “worn-out” Democratic talking points, noting courts sided with Republicans in challenging county auditors who were “going rogue in this state” last election cycle.