On March 8, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a new bill into law – Senate File 413. The most notable changes from the new legislation are that it will reduce the early voting window from 29 to 20 days and polls will close at 8 p.m., one hour earlier.
Iowa House passed the bill, 57-37 Feb. 24, with every Republican in support and every Democrat opposed. Six representatives were absent. The House vote came a day after the State Senate passed the measure, 30-18, with two absent.
While some claim SF413 is an act of “voter suppression” orchestrated by the GOP, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said the new law is in response to perceived issues.
“Unfortunately some of those issues were because we had some renegade auditors,” Pate said.
Pate said three county auditors – Joel Miller of Linn, Travis Weipert of Johnson, and Pat Gil of Woodbury – blatantly ignored the law and the directive of his office by distributing pre-filled absentee ballot forms, which circumvents election security measures and invites identity theft.
“They knew,” he said. “We had already covered this topic with auditors in early meetings and I had specifically communicated with these auditors telling them not to do it.”
Pate said the pre-filled absentee ballots were printed with the voter’s confidential Voter ID Numbers.
“It’s like your bank pin number. You don’t send it out,” he said “It was unsolicited. They didn’t even know it was coming.”
At least one voter received the wrong ballot request form from Weipert’s office, which could have lead to a voter losing their right to vote.
“That is part of what the legislature is responding to,” Pate said.
Under the new law, absentee ballots will also have to arrive by the time the polls close in order to be counted, rather than counting as long as they were placed in the mail the day before Election Day. County auditors who disobey or fail to follow state guidance could face criminal charges.
Pate on absentee voting
In 2020, Iowans broke an all-time turnout record for a general election with more than 1,697,000 voters, surpassing the previous the previous state record of 1,589,951 set in 2012. That record was achieved, in part, by Pate’s decision to exercise his emergency powers to mail absentee ballot request forms to every active registered voter in the state ahead of the June 2 primary.
“We were amidst of the COVID coming out. We knew it was a really devastating pandemic. We just didn’t know how, or what it’s going to look like, and going into an election ... we knew we had concern about the safety of the voter,” said Pate. “When you’re bringing in thousands of people to vote in close proximity, it was an invitation for a problem we didn’t want to put our citizens to.”
Pate said the effort was successful.
“It protected people in a time that we needed it to. It also clearly demonstrated high voter participation ... for both political parties,” he said.
However, as November’s general election approached, Pate said the Iowa State Legislature removed his emergency power authority, which he then asked members of the State House and Senate to support for the safety of Iowa’s voters.
“They agreed it was the thing to do during the pandemic,” Pate said. “And if we had another pandemic, I would be right up there doing the same thing.”
As the legislature strives to strike a balance between access to absentee ballots and the value of an informed electorate, Pate pointed out some of his concerns.
While a longer window for voting sounds good in theory to some, in Pate’s opinion, it drives up campaign costs, which he said many people already think are too high.
“It puts a lot of pressure on campaigns to have to put their message out well ahead of what would be a normal election cycle,” he said.
Another consequence of a longer voting window Pate noted was that voters could be deprived of information that comes out late in the election season. Pate fears people will not know who all the candidates are as some candidates are still holding debates after many votes have already been cast.
“Don’t think Congress, think, your state legislators, your county supervisors, those kind of races,” Pate said. “Now they are going to fall off on a ticket ... A lot more votes for top of the ticket, not down at the bottom, because they haven’t gotten any information yet. Those campaigns haven’t really gotten out in front of voters.”