After record primary turnout, Iowa senate Republicans try to limit vote-by-mail in presidential election

June 9, 2020, 4:44 PM UTC

Iowa set a new record for primary election turnout this month after secretary of state Paul Pate sent applications for mail-in ballots to all registered voters. More than 520,000 ballots were cast, according to Pate’s office, beating the previous record of 450,000 set in 1994. 

Now, Republicans in the state senate are trying to prevent him from doing the same in the general election this November. 

The Iowa Senate State Government Committee advanced a 30-page bill on a party-line vote late last week that would prohibit Pate, also a Republican, from proactively sending applications for mail-in-ballots to all registered voters. Anyone who wanted a mail-in ballot would need to submit a written request on their own and show proof of valid voter identification.

The bill would prohibit the secretary from taking emergency election action in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The secretary can make changes in cases of extreme weather or during wartime, it says, but not during a health crisis. It also prevents Pate from making any changes to the early or absentee voting process, even in an emergency.

In addition, the bill would require election offices to send reminder notices to any voter who misses one general election and would require his or her status to be updated to “inactive” before the notices are sent. Current law says that notices should sent after four years of no voting, with no change in status unless the post office returns the notice as undeliverable.

According to Johnson County elections worker John Deeth, this could affect the status of hundreds of thousands of voters who only participate in presidential elections, rendering them “inactive,” which is the first step toward canceling a voter’s registration.

Senator Roby Smith, who proposed the bill, says that the changes come in response to fears of voter fraud. “This ensures Iowa registered voters continue to have safe, secure, and reliable elections,” the senator told Iowa Public Radio.

There have been 23 people convicted of voter fraud in the state over the past five years, according to The Gazette. 

The Iowa State Association of County Auditors, a nonpartisan group, expressed confusion over the purpose of the bill.

“County auditors, as local commissioners of elections, are baffled by this,” wrote president Roxanna Moritz in a letter to Iowa lawmakers. “The 2020 primary was very successful, based on a variety of metrics, largely due to the steps taken by the secretary. Counties experienced record or near-record turnout. Election Day went very smoothly. Results were rapidly available. Why would the state want to cripple the process that led to such success?”

Moritz added that the bill would hurt the state’s ability to prepare for elections in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Nothing about this is righteous. Nothing about this adds value. Nothing about this promotes voting,” tweeted Deidre DeJear, a Democrat running for Iowa secretary of state. 

Smith later defended his bill, saying that local election officials and campaigns could still send out applications for ballots, and that his plans would just limit the secretary of state from doing so. His legislation, he said, would also extend application request deadlines for those who are hospitalized and would provide an extra week after elections for voters who fail to sign their envelopes (typically these voters are contacted by an election board and are asked to provide another signed document).

“This will actually expand absentee voting, and more absentee votes will be counted under this proposal,” he said.

But Smith has a history of limiting access to vote-by-mail and absentee ballots. Let America Vote, a national political action group that advocates for voter rights, added Smith to its “Voter Suppression Hall of Shame” in October for introducing a bill that would require absentee votes to be turned in by Election Day and that would close polling stations at 8 p.m. instead of 9 p.m. The bill would have also banned early satellite voting in state-owned buildings, like certain college campuses.

Senate Democrats also remained unconvinced.

“If a pandemic isn’t bad enough to go to an absentee ballot program, I don’t know what is. The attack on the secretary of state is unfair. He did a great job, a lot of people voted, and there has been no evidence of fraud,” Tony Bisignano, the top Democrat on the committee, told the Waterloo–Cedar Falls Courier.

The bill comes as President Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed that voting by mail-in ballot will lead to widespread voter fraud. The President has threatened to “hold up” federal funding to states like Michigan and Nevada because of their use of voting by mail to decrease large gatherings of people during the pandemic. 

In California, the Republican National Committee, National Republican Congressional Committee, and California Republican Party have filed a lawsuit against Gov. Gavin Newsom and secretary of state Alex Padilla, calling the governor’s order to send mail-in ballots to every registered voter an illegal “usurpation of the legislature’s authority” to plan the “time, place, and manner” of the election.

But vote-by-mail fraud in the United States is exceedingly rare. One study found just 491 cases of absentee ballot fraud from 2000 to 2012 during a period where “literally billions of votes were cast,” according to election law professor Richard L. Hasen. There is no evidence that suggests that sending in ballots by mail results in a systematic bias toward either party.

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