For people who watch politics in Iowa, the June 2 primary results couldn't have been more surprising.
More than 527,000 people voted, shattering the previous record high set in the 1994 primary. That this record turnout would happen in the midst of a pandemic, particularly when polling sites were being consolidated because of the inability to attract poll workers due to fears over the coronavirus was even more remarkable.
It happened largely because of a decision by the state’s chief election official, Secretary of State Paul Pate, who used his emergency powers to send an absentee ballot request to every registered voter in the state and expand the early voting period. He and county auditors across the state also amplified this unified message: Vote from the security of your home.
It worked. Iowans of all parties and political persuasions clearly listened, and it was a grand success.
For his trouble, Republicans in the Iowa Legislature are seeking to rein in Pate.
Even if there is a second wave of COVID-19 infections this fall, the Republican secretary of state won’t be able to repeat this success. Some Republican legislators, led by Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, are moving on a 30-page proposal, introduced late last week, that makes a number of changes to state election law, among them the prohibition against Pate sending an absentee ballot request to voters who haven't asked for one.
Smith says his proposal would actually expand voting access, citing an extension of the deadline to sign an absentee ballot if voters forget to do so, along with limiting the number of polling places auditors can close. Democrats see it differently. They point to parts of the bill that would quickly remove people from the registration rolls if they haven't voted, and that make it harder for election officials to use existing voter data to verify flawed absentee ballot requests.
But here is what is most perplexing to us: After a record primary turnout amid a global pandemic, driven in large part by the kind of common sense thinking that should be taught in civics classes as a model of public engagement in the midst of a crisis, why would lawmakers want to dismantle the tool that made it possible in the first place?
There is no doubt – none – that making it easier to request absentee ballots contributed to a higher turnout in Iowa. Now that authority may be removed. (In Illinois, fears over the coronavirus likely led to a lower March primary turnout. There, lawmakers have wisely taken steps to expand absentee options).
Smith tells us that county auditors could still send out such mass mailings for the general election. But, of course, not all auditors would do that. Some might not even get permission from their county boards. (We would note that Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz asked for permission to send a mass mailing before the primary, but she was refused by the Republican-led county board. At the time, Republican supervisors told us they were looking to the state for guidance. We were sympathetic to that idea then. We still are. After all, on issues of such importance, there shouldn’t be a patchwork response.)
We suspect the parties and campaigns will widely circulate absentee ballot requests for the general election. But we also know they do this with their own interests in mind. Political organizations hardly ever bother to solicit people who aren’t likely to vote for them, or who tend not to vote at all. Which leaves lots of people out.
It’s the latter, those people who tend to sit out elections — as well as those who might be afraid to go to the polls this fall — who will benefit from an absentee ballot request from their state government.
Republican legislative leaders, seeking to explain these changes, said last week that it was important that campaigns have clarity going into the general election.
We can understand why politicians and campaigns want this. It increases efficiency.
Our priority is different: We believe that it should be as easy for Iowans to legally vote as possible, especially in the face of a pandemic that could rear its head again this fall.
To his credit, Paul Pate contributed greatly to this goal with stunning success in Iowa's June 2 primary.
If this proposal passes, he won’t get the chance to do it again.
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