Republicans Screwed Themselves By Attacking Iowa Absentee Ballot Efforts

If there’s one thing you can say about Iowa Republican legislators, it’s this: they’re not very bright.

Their latest scheme to make it more difficult to vote in Iowa is about to blow up in their faces in spectacular fashion, and they have no one but themselves to blame for it.

At the very end of this year’s abbreviated legislative session, Republicans quickly snuck through a series of election reform measures aimed at making absentee voting a little more difficult during the pandemic. Their main target was Secretary of State Paul Pate, who they felt overstepped his authority when he sent out an absentee ballot request form to every registered voter in the state for the June 2 primary.

Pate’s mailer was a wild success, leading to the highest primary turnout ever at 531,131 votes, over 77% of which were cast by absentee. He also extended the early voting window back to the 40 days it used to be before legislative Republicans cut that down to 29 days in recent years.

House and Senate Republicans’ response was to limit the Secretary of State’s emergency powers and provide legislative oversight to future decisions, with the intent of blocking any future efforts to send out a statewide absentee mailer (it’s not clear at this point if Pate would try). They also ended a rule that allowed county auditors to fill in missing information on voters’ absentee request forms. That was targeted mostly at voters who don’t have a driver’s license, don’t know their voter ID number and who don’t fill out the ID section of their form; previously, auditors’ could fill that in for them.

In past election cycles, especially when Gov. Terry Branstad returned to office, absentee ballot voting was a largely bipartisan affair, with Republicans seeing the great value in the vote-by-mail option both for voters and their own campaigns. But this is Donald Trump’s party now, and the President is on a crusade against absentee voting, despite voting absentee himself, because he fears it will encourage higher turnout, including among those who want him out of office.

Iowa Republicans have since taken his lead, but it should be dawning on them this week how terrible an error they made.

Here’s the problem (well, for the GOP anyway): while Republicans plan on blocking another statewide absentee ballot request mailer, county auditors in the state’s urban and more Democratic counties are planning on sending out their own.

Dubuque, Linn, Johnson and Polk county auditors have all announced that they will send out their own absentee request mailer for the November election. Laura Belin confirmed that Woodbury, Scott and Black Hawk counties will or are very likely to do so as well.

Statewide and congressional Democratic candidates build their winning margins in many of those urban counties. There haven’t been any smaller, rural, more Republican counties that have confirmed they’ll send out absentee request forms yet. One issue is cost: Pate’s mailer was very successful in part because it had a postage-paid return mailer.

There’s more: according to an email obtained by Starting Line from the Secretary of State’s office, it appears that some auditors plan on pre-populating the voter ID number on voters’ request forms. Auditors now can’t fill it in afterward if the driver’s license and ID number are missing, but if it’s already filled in ahead of time, that takes away one more obstacle to voters getting an absentee ballot. The Secretary of State’s office is warning against doing this — watch for this conflict to play out in the weeks to come.

So all it seems the Republican legislators accomplished with their attack on Pate, a fellow Republican, was to create an unbalanced scenario where voters in Democratic counties are much more likely to get an absentee request form than those in Republican counties.

Yes, both political parties and many campaigns will send out their own statewide absentee request mailers to voters who their modeling shows are likely supporters. But that won’t cover every voter, and, in general, more sporadic voters who get a form to easily vote by mail in a county that already favors one party will probably further benefit that party.

It all also raises the question, do Republicans not even know who their base is in these Trump years?

I’ll never forget the observation a friend told me about what they saw on Election Day in 2016. I believe it was in New Hampton, the small county seat of Chickasaw County in Northeast Iowa, where a family of shut-ins — folks who barely ever leave their home and don’t interact in the community at all — came out to vote at the polls for the first time ever because they liked they way Trump talked. Those rural Northeast Iowa counties saw some of the biggest swings from Obama to Trump in the nation, in part because new or extremely sporadic voters showed up for Republicans.

The Democratic base is fired up this year. The Republican base — or moreso Trump’s base — is increasingly made up of outsider-type voters, including many sporadic voters who might fall through a party’s modeling efforts. And other Republicans are growing disenchanted by the administration’s constant controversies and failures at the Supreme Court. Getting a ballot in their mailbox makes it much more likely that they end up voting, regardless of their feelings on actual Election Day.

And that’s to say nothing of the fact that, despite Republicans’ efforts to ignore it, most Americans are actually still very concerned about the coronavirus, especially older voter who used to favor Republicans that may not want to risk going out to the polls in person.

It really isn’t totally clear that a statewide absentee request mailer for November would disproportionately benefit one party or the either. Given the dynamics of 2020 and the differences in voter enthusiasm, it’s entirely possible that it could give a slight edge to Republicans.

But Democratic lawmakers who opposed the election changes didn’t take that into consideration much, they were simply sticking to their core belief that making voting easier is the right thing to do. Republicans stuck with Trump’s paranoid lies about voter fraud, and took a different path.

Many Republicans, especially Sen. Roby Smith, who spearheaded the election changes in the Senate, were furious when critics called their effort a voter suppression bill. But it was one. It just may suppress more Republican votes than Democratic ones.

And it seems that Republicans on the Legislative Council weren’t even sure what they passed. As Rep. Chris Hall tweeted during the meeting, Republicans had to double-check that they hadn’t also stopped county auditors from sending out request forms. They didn’t. Oops.

In the future, Iowa Republican legislators would be wise to question the big ideas coming from Sen. Smith and anyone else who had a major hand in passing this short-sighted, vindictive legislation. That is, if they’re still in power after the 2020 election.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 7/7/20

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.

4 Comments on "Republicans Screwed Themselves By Attacking Iowa Absentee Ballot Efforts"

  • Republican legislators have become control freaks, desirous of the power to control every facet of of state and local decision making.

  • It is great to see that some county auditors in Iowa have taken the initiative to mail out applications for absentee ballots. The Iowa GOP thought they were a bunch of geniuses when they passed a law in June trying to suppress the absentee vote. They should have checked the Iowa Code before they did their victory dance. Sometimes our county auditors know more about voting laws than our GOP politicians.

  • Roby Smith included the requirement that 90% of polling sites must be open for the election. So, how does the county auditor staff these sites if the usual poll workers (elderly and early retirees) won’t work the polls because of circumstances like corona virus? Should he/she send sheriff’s deputies to drag these workers to the polls? Roby Smith can’t manage his way out of a paper bag. Hopefully, he will lose his seat in the legislature.

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