Voting rights advocates say they’re concerned with Republican priorities during ongoing calls for racial and health justice as election legislation that they call “voter suppression” and “poll tax” bills pass in the Statehouse.
After a spirited, two hour debate in the Senate on Wednesday, a bill that would bar the Secretary of State from mailing absentee ballot request forms without first receiving a voter’s request for one passed. This comes after legislation was signed into law last week by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds which would prevent the restoration of some former felons’ voting rights until after they paid victim compensation.
Deidre DeJear, the Democratic 2018 challenger to Paul Pate, a Republican, said the passage and discussion of these bills are shocking as thousands rally throughout the state for more racial equity in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
“It is as intentional as you could get as it relates to disregarding people. I cannot see any rationale behind those bills as it relates to felon voting rights and absentee ballots. I see no rationale behind energy spent into those things,” DeJear said.
“[Republicans are] being stumbling blocks. I don’t expect them to hold our hands and say kumbaya at this time—we’ll get there eventually, but don’t be the reason people can’t exercise their right to vote.”
Pate mailed absentee ballot request forms to all registered voters in Iowa ahead of the June 2 primary, which led to record turnout as 522,207 Iowans cast votes– more than 80% of that was from absentee ballots.
Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, praised Pate and county auditors on the Senate floor Wednesday, saying they acted responsibly during a public health emergency.
“Crisis reveals character. Now I don’t always agree with everything Paul Pate, our secretary of state, has done. But this is one time where he acted responsibly and in the best interest of Iowans and Iowa voters in the 2020 primary. As did our county auditors.,” said Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, on the senate floor. “Why are we slapping him in the face today with this amendment? Why are we slapping the face of our county auditors, who acted respectfully and legally? Why? Why would we want to make it more difficult for people to access an absentee ballot? To access a ballot in general?”
She said the Republicans were “rigging” the general election by trying to block the same process in November, which may be subject to another COVID-19 spike.
“If the only way we can win an election is by rigging it, then god help us. This is nothing more than trying to rig an election,” she said.
DeJear said this bill would inhibit the Secretary of State from comprehensively doing his job.
“When you see states like Georgia with a lack of capacity and a lack of organization, and the output of what comes is just like total disarray. Why would we limit our auditors’ ability to do their job when we know what it looks like when auditors have limitations. We don’t need to look like Georgia,” she said. “Our secretary of state did the right thing in sending those absentee ballot requests out. He did the right thing, he’s promoting voting—he’s doing his job. And we’ve got folks that are elected officials that are asking him not to do his job, essentially.”
Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, author of the bill, said that the legislation was to keep the secretary of state in check—that there needs to be Iowa code that wouldn’t someday “get rid of voter ID,” among other things.
“We wouldn’t like this. I know some of you would love that. But you know what, we pass laws here that go in the codebook of Iowa… If we don’t have this in the codebook of Iowa, one person can come in and do whatever he or she wants,” he said. “This is putting one on the secretary of state, and that’s needed.”
Tim Kapucian, R-Keystone, and Mark Lofgren, R-Muscatine, joined Democrats by voting against the bill, which was passed in the Iowa Senate by 30-19 and is now headed to the House.
DeJear also questioned Republicans’ actions during the current time-sensitive moment. Gov. Reynolds has said restoring felon’s voting rights was a top priority for her administration but has before resisted calls to enact an executive order that would automatically reinstate them like some of her predecessors. She has instead requested that lawmakers pass an amendment to accomplish the task.
“Governor Reynolds says that this is an important issue to her. She says that the restoration of felon voting rights is important to her and she wants to see that done. It’s time for her to get it done. She can’t live in fear on this one. Because too much is at stake,” she said.
by Isabella Murray
Iowa Starting Line is an independently-owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.