Just 3½ months removed from the largest election turnout in history, Republicans in the Iowa Legislature are considering a bill to further shorten the early voting period in the state.
Two simultaneous bills that just passed out of committee last week, House File 590 and Senate File 413, both call for changes in election laws that the GOP says would help secure the vote. However, Bremer County Auditor Shelley Wolf sees both the pros and the cons of the measures.
She said the current 29-day early and absentee voting period worked well for her office for the 2020 general election.
“It was hugely beneficial that we were able to enter absentee ballot requests well before that,” Wolf said. “We started receiving requests in July, already.
“The work for us was spread out over a great deal of time.”
If the bills pass as is and signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, it would be the second time in four years that election laws would have been changed. In 2017, the absentee voting period was trimmed from 40 days, voter ID provisions were added, and starting in 2019, school and municipal elections were combined.
Currently, election commissioners could take absentee ballot requests up to 120 days prior to election day. However, in the parallel bills, that time frame will be shortened to just 70 days, meaning instead of early July, ballot requests would not be available until late August or early September.
Additionally, the ballots will not be available until 18 days before election day, meaning the early voting period would start in mid-October.
Also, election officials cannot proactively establish satellite voting centers, but instead they can only be set up if 100 voters petition for them. In October 2020, Wolf’s office had a voting center in what is now the Mantra House on Second Street Northeast to provide for adequate separation during the COVID-19 pandemic rather than hold the early vote in the Bremer County Courthouse.
Wolf said that having the longer period did result in her staff fielding more inquiry phone calls. It also led to some duplication and confusion.
“I see where (legislators) are coming from with what they’re proposing, and we do whatever the law lands on,” she said. “We just do what we have to.”
The bills also require election officials in each county and the state to change the way they maintain voter rolls. They are required to use the electronic registration information center to update their systems to make sure there aren’t duplications in registrations, if there were address changes, or if a voter had died.
Also, instead of two consecutive general elections, a voter could be considered inactive if they miss the most recent general election.
“I think everybody wants the voter rolls to be as clean as they possibly can be,” Wolf said. “What they’re proposing is to clean them up more timely and quicker, but at the same time, all it takes is someone missing one election, and they’re made inactive, but they’re also notified that they can turn around (and reactivate themselves).
“Clean is good, but we don’t want to create more work for people or take people off who simply didn’t vote in one election.”
Notifications would be sent by mail.
Other changes include adjustments on how candidates are nominated for offices, an addition to clarify that the secretary of state and county auditors cannot make their own rules without legislative permission, changing that mailed in ballots need to have a postal service barcode indicating the date mailed rather than a traditional postmark, and criminal penalties for election mismanagement.
Wolf said if the bills become law, she anticipates nothing different in the way her staff handles the changes.
“We just have to do our best to — well, the secretary of state usually guides us — in understanding the new laws and the new bills and putting things into practice,” she said.