On Tuesday night, Mariannette Miller-Meeks received at least 22,771 votes in her winning campaign for the Republican nomination in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District. Despite facing a vote-splitting, five-way field, it was the largest number of votes Miller-Meeks has ever earned in a primary.
In 2014, she got 15,043 votes. 18,830 Republicans backed her in 2010. And she won with 7,372 votes in 2008.
It was all part of a record-breaking election for an Iowa primary, in which over 524,675 Iowans statewide voted, the most ever. This was despite a deadly pandemic, in large part because the Republican Secretary of State sent out an absentee ballot mailer to every registered voter. By Election Day, 418,923 Iowans had already voted by mail.
That was Tuesday night. What did Miller-Meeks do Friday night once back at the Iowa Statehouse in her role as a state senator?
Voted for legislation that would put restrictions on the very absentee balloting that made that record turnout possible.
In a 10-5 party-line vote in the Senate State Government Committee, Miller-Meeks joined her Republican colleagues in passing an amendment that would make it harder for voters to receive an absentee ballot request and to fill it out.
The 30-page amendment would impact elections in many ways, including forbidding the Secretary of State from sending out absentee requests again, stop election officials from filling in some easily-confirmable data if a voter omits it on an absentee ballot request, kick voters off the registration list if they missed a single general election vote, limit what major events call for emergency voting actions (not pandemics), and more.
County election officials balked at the move that followed the state’s most-successful primary election yet.
“According to unofficial results from the Iowa Secretary of State’s website, almost 80% of the votes cast in the primary were voters who did so early – mostly by mail,” Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald said in a statement. “This isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue, this is a safety issue … It’s perplexing that instead of celebrating our record turnout in a pandemic that the Iowa Senate is looking to tie the hands of a non-partisan mailer that gave every Iowan the opportunity to vote.”
Scott County Auditor Roxanna Mortiz said auditors around the state were “baffled by this.”
“We hope that the legislature will reject House File 2486 … out of respect to the hundreds of thousands of Iowa voters who just exercised their rights in the most basic act of democratic government, without having to choose between their rights and their health,” Mortiz said.
Secretary of State Paul Pate’s absentee ballot request mailing has been widely credited to the massive surge in turnout as Iowans wanted to keep themselves safe during the pandemic. He also extended the days for absentee balloting, which this amendment would now prevent.
For her part, Miller-Meeks argued that campaigns encouraging people to vote by mail was the reason for high turnout, excusing this amendment that would make it harder for people to fill those absentee requests out. She also said that one voter told her that her two college-aged children received absentee requests despite not living at home for 20 years.
“It’s challenging to make the assumption that because the Secretary of State mailed out absentee ballot requests, that that explains the turnout,” Miller-Meeks asserted in a brief speech. “There was record Republican turnout because people weren’t at work, they were sequestered at home, they weren’t taking kids to athletic events or dance events or cultural events, and they were watching TV and reading direct mail.”
And she had one other potential reason why turnout was so high: herself.
“Maybe it’s also because you had two incredible congressional candidates who were running, so thank you,” Miller-Meeks joked as she ended her comments.
Democratic senators were perplexed and furious.
“What are you afraid of?” Sen. Pam Jochum questioned, pointing to the record turnout.
Sen. Todd Taylor called it “a voter suppression bill.”
Sen. Tony Bisignano blasted Republican Sen. Roby Smith for allowing this controversial amendment onto what was an otherwise-mundane bill about putting county seals on ballots.
“By ruling this amendment germane is probably the biggest abuse of power that the Republican Party has done in the Iowa Senate since you got here!” Bisignano shouted.
It’s not clear whether the the House will be interested in taking up the quickly-produced legislation in the week it has remaining in Des Moines.
Ever since Republicans took full control of the Iowa Statehouse, they have passed legislation to make voting more difficult for Iowans. They claim it is for voter security reasons, even as instances of voter fraud are rare to nonexistent in the state. Most believe it is to reduce turnout from groups of voters who are more likely to support Democrats.
However, restricting the vote-by-mail option as Miller-Meeks is trying to do may end up back-firing on her, in addition to reducing Iowans’ voting rights. From May to June, Republicans actually made up ground on Democrats’ new voter registration advantage thanks to absentee balloting, shaving Democrats’ margin down by about 5,000.
And those most concerned with going out in public — older Americans, who have a much greater chance of dying from the coronavirus — have trended toward Donald Trump and Republicans in recent years. In a poll from just this week, Trump led Biden among voters by 17 points among those 46 to 65, and by 2 of those older than 65.
But on the political side, playing politics with voting during a deadly pandemic has already shown to be an extremely unpopular position for voters. Democrats won an upset victory in the early April Wisconsin Supreme Court election after Republican lawmakers forced the election to still be held in-person at the peak of the pandemic.
Miller-Meeks now goes on to face Democrat Rita Hart in the general election. In that historic primary election, Hart received 66,684 votes, more than all the five Republican candidates combined.
by Pat Rynard
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