Is Iowa’s 2021 Voter Suppression Bill The Worst Yet?

DES MOINES, IA - NOVEMBER 06: The State Capital of Iowa reflects the sunset on November 6, 2018 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by David Greedy/Getty Images)
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February 19, 2021 12:12 p.m.

The 2020 election cycle saw historic voter turnout, netting President Joe Biden the most votes ever won by a U.S. presidential candidate.

Now, Republican-run state legislatures are doing what they do best: trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again. 

Since all but six legislatures have convened, the country has been inundated with a flood of voter suppression bills, many pushed forward under the guise of a serious if evidence-free fear of voter fraud. According to a tracker put together by the Brennan Center at New York University law school, 28 states “have introduced, prefiled, or carried over 106 restrictive bills this year (as compared to 35 such bills in fifteen states on February 3, 2020).”

Of the sordid lot, a new bill out of Iowa may just be the worst. 

“If you asked me to sum it up in two words, it’s voter suppression,” Travis Weipert, the auditor who runs elections for Johnson County, which includes Iowa City, told TPM. “There is so much garbage in there it’s unreal.” 

The 36-page bill was described to TPM as a greatest-hits list of GOP-proffered restrictive voting measures, taking particular aim at mail-in voting. It would chop Iowa’s early voting window from 29 days to 18, leaving hardly any time for absentee ballots to be received, filled out and sent back, especially if recent nationwide postal delays continue. It severely limits who can deliver an absentee ballot on someone’s behalf, a seeming attempt to stop volunteers from stepping in to get them returned quickly. It also only gives Iowans 70 days before the election to request an absentee ballot, down from the 120 days currently enshrined in the law. 

“Iowa Republicans are in the running for introducing the worst anti-voting bill,” the Democratic voting rights lawyer Marc Elias tweeted recently. “It’s a race to the shameful bottom.”

But while the bill may win superlatives, it’s not unique among the nationwide flood of suppressive bills. 

“The backlash has been particularly intense and voluminous in that lawmakers are taking specific aim at policies that were previously entirely uncontroversial, like vote by mail,” Eliza Sweren-Becker, counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, told TPM. Per the Brennan bill tracker, over a third of the 106 restrictive bills introduced this year seek to limit voting by mail. 

The new Republican vehemence against vote by mail is thanks to former president Trump, who spent much of the 2020 cycle spewing misinformation about absentee voting as rife with fraud — in some cases, likely to his own detriment. As a result of that and an aggressive push to embrace absentee voting by Democrats amid the pandemic, last year saw an unusually partisan divide.

Now, state-level Republicans — including those in Iowa — are legislating in a knee-jerk, reactionary way, trying to make it harder for Democrats to vote in huge numbers through the mail like they did in 2020. That may come back to bite them. 

“It’s hard to know whether what we saw in 2020 vote by mail-wise is going to continue since obviously 2020 was an anomaly in a lot of ways,” Sweren-Becker said. “Vote by mail has been traditionally used by older voters, and skewed whiter. Restrictions on voting by mail could ultimately hurt those voters particularly going forward.” 

The 2020 cycle saw a swell of young voters and voters of color — generally Democratic-friendly constituencies — using absentee voting, but it’s too soon to tell if that was a pandemic-specific aberration. 

Iowa Republicans have spread the suppressive net wide though, covering their bases. The bill takes particular aim at auditors, the county officials who run elections in the state. In one of the provisions rankling the state’s election officials most, it would prevent them from sending absentee ballot request forms to any voter under any circumstance. 

“I’m one of the front line staffers on the phone with the public and many, many older voters are still reliant on legacy communication: the paper phone book and landline, the printed newspaper, the network and local 6 p.m. newscast,” John Deeth, an election staffer in Weipert’s office, told TPM. “They need to be able to pick up the phone, talk to a person, and ask for help, and when you ask them if they can print out a form, it’s often awkward and embarrassing for them.”

That provision is also a punishment. In 2020, auditors in two Democratic counties and one Republican one defied the Iowa secretary of state’s orders and sent out absentee ballot request forms with some voters’ information already filled in, so all they had to do was review, sign and send it back. Trump’s campaign, with some other Republican groups, filed a lawsuit. In mid-October, less than a month before Election Day, the Iowa Supreme Court sided with a lower court ruling and invalidated tens of thousands of absentee ballot requests.

Now, in this new bill, not only are auditors prevented from sending out even blank request forms, they stand to be the targets for heavy fines and investigations. One provision requires the Iowa attorney general or county attorney to investigate any allegations of election misconduct. Last cycle, the state AG declined to investigate the auditor of Democratic-leaning Linn County even at the Republican secretary of state’s urging. 

Another requires that auditors follow all election guidance from the secretary of state, currently Republican Paul Pate, or be charged with first-degree election misconduct, a felony. The secretary of state’s office could send employees to county offices to look for any “technical infractions” 60 days before and after the election, violations which could be charged by up to a $10,000 fine. 

“They’re trying to punish the three of us who tried to go out of our way to help people not break the law,” said Weipert, one of the three auditors that sent out the pre-filled absentee ballot request forms. 

There’s a grab-bag of other suppressive tactics in the bill: county auditors can only set up one dropbox outside their office, a continuation of the battle between the secretary of state and Linn County auditor who wanted to put one outside of a grocery store. County auditors no longer get to pick satellite voting locations — “that’s an attack on state universities and their younger voters,” said Veronica Fowler, communications director at the ACLU’s Iowa chapter. Voters are labeled “inactive,” the first step to being removed from the rolls, after missing just one election. 

Republicans have a trifecta in Iowa, controlling both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s mansion.

“Some version of this bill is likely to pass,” Deeth said. “The question is details.” 

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