DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Barely a week after Iowa election officials reported a record primary turnout after mailing absentee ballot applications to all registered voters, Republican legislative leaders in the Senate pushed a bill that would limit the secretary of state’s ability to do so again.
Senate Republicans argued the changes are needed to to fight voter fraud, though studies show millions of ballots have been cast by mail without significant problems.
House Republicans worked with Democrats to amend the bill saying the Legislature should have the final say in how elections are conducted.
“There’s a dire need to put common sense constraints on the secretary of state because they’re sorely needed,” Republican Rep. Bobby Kaufmann said during Thursday night debate in the House where the amendment passed 93-2.
Democrats said the Senate bill was an effort to suppress voting because Republicans believe a higher turnout benefits Democratic candidates.
On Wednesday night, the Senate approved extensive changes to election procedures in a vote with only Republican support.
Under the House-passed plan, the secretary of state would still be able to send absentee ballots to voters but would need legislative committee approval first.
A record 524,675 cast ballots in the June 3 primary, topping a previous high set in 1994 by more than 75,000 votes.
Sen. Roby Smith, a Davenport Republican, defended his bill against criticism that he was trying to rig the November election. Smith’s bill would require voters to fill out a form to request an absentee ballot and would prevent the secretary of state from sending request forms out automatically to registered voters. It also requires voters to show proof they’re valid voters with a state-issued pin number or drivers license.
“This bill is about security,” he said Wednesday during Senate debate. “This bill is to make sure someone’s vote is not erased by someone that is voting but is not legally allowed to vote.”
However, the Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan law and public policy institute based at the New York University Law School, said in an April analysis that more than 250 million votes have been cast via mail-out ballot since 2000 without significant problems. Besides absentee ballots, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington use mail balloting as their primary method of voting.
“Despite this dramatic increase in mail voting over time, fraud rates remain infinitesimally small,” the organization said. “None of the five states that hold their elections primarily by mail has had any voter fraud scandals since making that change.”
Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, sent absentee applications with prepaid postage to all voters due to concerns that busy polling places could spread the coronavirus. Pate later celebrated the record turnout and stood by his decision.
Democrats have responded to the Republican Senate plan with outrage.
Sen. Claire Celsi, a West Des Moines Democrat, said she has received hundreds of emails from voters opposing the bill.
“It’s sick. You should be ashamed of yourselves,” she told Republicans from the Senate floor. “This is just a terrible, terrible travesty and I urge you to please find a conscience and vote no.”
Sen. Pam Jochum of Dubuque said she disagrees with Pate on other issues but complimented him on putting voters first. She asked Smith why the bill is necessary.
“Why are we doing this? Why? What are you afraid of? That somehow if more people vote it may effect someone’s election negatively? If the only way we can win an election is by rigging it, then God help us,” she said.
Democratic Rep. Bruce Hunter said the House amendment is the right thing to do.
He said the Iowa Association of County Auditors sent him a letter saying they feel it is a good bipartisan compromise after expressing serious concerns about the Senate version.
“This amendment happened because we did listen to those concerns,” Hunter said.