Can Biden Peel Back Iowa’s New Voter Suppression Laws?

Photo by Tony Webster

With COVID-19 relief out of the way and other priorities in motion, the Biden administration is shifting focus to protecting voting rights with the For the People Act.

The bill, also known as H.R. 1 and S.R. 1, is aimed at making it easier for people to vote, end corrupting influences in American elections like gerrymandering and dark money, and strengthen protections against foreign interference and ethics violations.

It would totally transform America’s elections—and bolster democracy—by expanding the electorate and removing barriers for registered voters.

This would halt and reverse a national movement of Republican-led states passing new laws to restrict access to polls, early and absentee voting, and to set new rules about how elections are conducted. Iowa was one of the first states in the nation to pass an all-new election law, despite no evidence of problems in 2020, and is often mentioned alongside Georgia for the country’s new, worst voting restrictions.

The For the People Act passed the House of Representatives in March and is awaiting debate in the United States Senate, where it faces obstruction and a Labor Day deadline. Vice President Kamala Harris was recently tasked with championing it. This weekend, Sen. Joe Manchin announced he would oppose it the bill, putting its prospects in the Senate in question.

For months, election and democracy experts have touted the positive effects of the legislation.

“This bill would set national standards to ensure that all eligible citizens have the freedom to vote and the ability to make that ballot count,” said Michael Waldman during testimony in front of a Senate committee in March. “Every one of these policies has worked at the national, state, or local level.”

Waldman is an attorney and the president of the Brennan Center for Justice, a law and public policy institute connected to New York University School of Law.

The voices of people committed to its passage have grown louder recently. Including the President of the United States.

At a public appearance Tuesday in Tulsa, Biden said he would do everything in his power to get the For the People Act through the Senate, despite his limited majority.

“We’re not giving up. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed the For the People Act to protect our democracy. The Senate will take it up later this month and I’m going to fight like heck, with every tool at my disposal, for its passage,” he said.

Biden pointed out that America’s history of restricting voting rights, and then expanding and restricting them again is long, so this episode isn’t unprecedented. But he’s confident Americans will show up to support their right to vote.

“We resolved to overcome it all and we did. More Americans voted in the last election, in the midst of a pandemic, than any election in American history,” he said.

That bore out in Iowa as well.

Over a million Iowans returned their absentee ballots last year, according to the Secretary of State’s office. Combined with in-person and early voting, Iowa saw 76% turnout, a record for Iowa and one of the highest turnout rates in the nation.

When Republicans in the Iowa Legislature passed a new election law this year, they cut down early voting, changed rules around absentee voting and imposed stricter regulations and penalties for county auditors conducting elections.

The League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa (LULAC) sued over the March bill signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds. The organization argues that parts of the law violate Iowa’s constitution that guarantees the right to vote, free speech, free assembly and equal protection under the law.

But they may not need it if the For the People Act goes through.

Included in the legislation are provisions that would directly reverse or alter the changes made by the Iowa Legislature. A communications director for Let America Vote laid out the ways it connects to Iowa.

The For the People Act would:

  • Require all voters receive an absentee ballot application, reversing Iowa’s new rule saying auditors can’t send an application unless a voter requests it
  • Modernize the voter registration system and mandate that election officials provide timely notice to removed voters
  • Register eligible voters automatically when they turn 18, though Iowans are still able to register on Election Day
  • Require states provide more than one ballot drop box per county, calling for a “sufficient number of secure, accessible and widely distributed drop-boxes for completed absentee ballots starting at least 45 days before the election”
  • Prohibit states from putting limits on the number of absentee ballots a person can return on behalf of others. A recent amendment proposed by Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Bill Hagerty ensures no one is compensated for returning ballots and they aren’t employed by a campaign or political party. The amendment was adopted and added to the bill.

The bill would also reinforce some of Iowa’s existing laws like the more secure paper ballots and multiple forms of identification for the voter ID law. Though the For the People Act allows some more options, too.

And this isn’t government overreach. Article I of the Constitution grants states the right to set election laws “but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations.”

Congress has done it before with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

“This legislation honors the Constitution…The Supreme Court in 2019, in an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, specifically pointed to this legislation as a constitutionally sound example of Congress’s power to set election law,” Waldman said in his testimony. “This is part of the great story of American democracy.”

 

by Nikoel Hytrek
Posted 6/7/21

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