GOP Legislators Reverse Course, Allow Statewide Absentee Mailer

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate was given the green light by a panel of state lawmakers on Friday to send absentee ballot request forms to all active registered voters ahead of November’s general election, but without auto-filled voter identification information or a voting extension proposed by Democratic lawmakers.

An emergency order allowing the Secretary of State’s office to mail absentee ballot request forms with instructions to registered voters, which will be blank except for the election date and type, was approved unanimously by the Iowa Legislative Council over the phone late Friday afternoon.

Republican lawmakers had previously passed legislation that would let them block the kind of statewide absentee ballot mailer that Pate did in the primary, which led to record-smashing turnout. However, after county auditors in mostly Democratic counties announced their intention to send their own request mailers, the GOP legislators reversed course.

Two Democratic amendments were shot down during the meeting, which would have required county auditors to send registered voters their voter PIN numbers along with the request forms and to extend the early voting period from 29 to 40 days before the Nov. 3 general election.

“I want Iowa voters and poll workers to be safe during this pandemic while we conduct a clean, fair and secure election. After consulting with all 99 county auditors, I believe the best way to accomplish that goal is by mailing an absentee ballot request form to every active registered voter in the state,” Pate said in a statement released Friday. “This process worked great in the June primary and I believe it will work in the general election.”

Ahead of the June 2 primary, Pate mailed absentee ballot request forms to all registered voters in Iowa and extended voting to 40 days before the election, which led to record turnout as 522,207 Iowans cast votes– 77% of that was from absentee ballots.

That prompted Republican legislators to try to reign in Pate’s emergency powers.

Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, author of the bill, said during debate last month 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.”

Another attempt by Democrats to let the secretary of state send absentee ballot request forms to all registered Iowa voters was blocked by Republicans on July 1 during a Legislative Council meeting.

In their own counties, a number of Democratic auditors in some of the state’s urban areas said they’d send their own absentee ballot request forms. The issue was then revisited after officials in many Republican counties said they didn’t have the resources to do the same, and GOP lawmakers found that their candidates could be disadvantaged in competitive races.

Democratic county auditors in Linn and Johnson counties also planned on sending requests with the voter ID pin number filled in, circumventing Republicans’ legislation that newly prevented auditors from filling that in for voters if they had enough additional information. Today’s actions prevent that.

“We need [the absentee ballot mailing process] to be predictable for campaigns and we need it to be uniform across the state so that Iowans in every county are treated the same,” Sen. Jack Whitver said today. “After today on July 17, every single campaign in the state of Iowa, Republican and Democrat, will know the rules going forward.”

“Three weeks ago we had this discussion and I said I’m not sure if its the government’s job to do do turnout for campaigns. I still don’t know if its the government’s job. What we found out over the past two weeks is that some counties are sending out absentee ballot requests, some aren’t. Some are pre-populating, some aren’t. I think what Iowans want is a uniform law across the state of Iowa.”

The two Democratic amendments discussed on the call were defeated by 14-10 party-line votes.

The first, introduced by Rep. Sharon Steckman, said that Pate’s emergency order should be approved without the directive which stated the ballot request need to be sent blank and to allow the secretary of state to provide all registered voters who lack a DOT provided ID to receive their voter PIN immediately preceeding the mailing of the absentee ballot request.

“We’re trying to make voting easier and more reliable… also, that PIN number belongs to them, it certainly should be provided to the voter…county auditors are elected to make sure their constituents can vote without confusion,” she said. “I think we’ve muddied the water enough and my amendment will bring some clarity to the entire process.

Sen. Whitver then urged his members not to vote for the amendment, noting that sending a PIN number to voters would invite voter fraud and insecure elections. A number of Democrats on the council refuted his claim.

“I think the statements that somehow mailing a PIN to the voter on an absentee ballot request is going to make our election not secure is simply a scare tactic and it’s misleading to the public. These auditors are the election officials for their individual counties,” said Rep. Todd Prichard. “It’s helping voters access through the ballot box. I see zero credible reason to not allow the auditors to mail these pins.”

Sen. Joe Bolkcom then added a motion to allow absentee voting to be extended to 40 days before the Nov. 3 general election, the same extension period instituted by Pate ahead of the June primaries.

While the legislative council was discussing the emergency order, U.S. Senator Joni Ernst commented on Iowa Press about absentee voting.

“I’m very, very familiar with Iowa’s election systems. I am OK with absentee voting, I am, because in Iowa that voter — while the secretary did mail out absentee ballot request forms — he didn’t just mail out ballots,” said Ernst, a former auditor in Montgomery County.

“So our voters actually have to sign and say I would like to receive an absentee ballot. There are signatures then on file, so if you feel there’s something not right, you can always go back and compare the various signatures on the request forms and the voter registration card. So, I’m comfortable with it.”


by Isabella Murray
Posted 7/17/20

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