Gov. Kim Reynolds signs elections bill that some Democrats call ‘voter supression’

A bill with high public opposition was signed into law on Monday. This bill will affect absentee voting, polling precinct hours, as well as penalties for election misconduct.


Ryan Adams

Attendees applaud Gov. Kim Reynolds during the State of the State address in the house chamber of the Iowa State Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021 in Des Moines. Gov. Reynolds highlighted in the address expansion of broadband internet, a push for in-person learning, and economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lauren White, Politics Reporter

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill that will change Iowa’s election process by shortening the early-voting period, limiting who can collect others’ ballots, closing in-person polls an hour earlier, and increasing criminal charges for election misconduct.

Reynolds signed Senate File 413 into law on Monday. As previously reported by The Daily Iowan, Iowa Republicans intend for this bill to protect the integrity of the state’s elections, but Democrats in the Legislature say it’s a voter suppression bill. 

This legislation strengthens uniformity by providing Iowa’s election officials with consistent parameters for Election Day, absentee voting, database maintenance, as well as a clear appeals process for local county auditors,” Reynolds said in a press release. “All of these additional steps promote more transparency and accountability, giving Iowans even greater confidence to cast their ballot.”

The bill received large opposition from Iowans last month when it was subject to a public hearing. More than 1,000 people registered in opposition to the bill and only a couple dozen Iowans registered in support of the bill.

Members from AARP Iowa, League of Women’s Voters of Iowa, and the Iowa Coalition against Domestic Violence were some of the first Iowans to sign in opposition of the bill. 

Johnson County Republican Party spokesperson Karen Fesler said that Iowa’s election integrity is already one of the strongest in the nation, but this measure will help tighten up rules and regulations. 

One aspect of the bill forces all absentee ballots to arrive at the auditor’s office before the polls close no matter what the postmark day is. Fesler said that this provision will make the elections more fair because those who choose to vote in person only have until 8 p.m. on Election Day, and those voting by mail should too. 

The bill shortens the absentee voting period from 29 days to 20 days, and Fesler said that the average absentee voting period nationwide is 22 days, so this makes Iowa closer to the average. 

Iowans have historically had high election turnout  and I don’t think this will diminish the turnout at all. People can still vote absentee and use the drive up voting. People have always found a way to vote in Iowa,” Fesler said. 

John Deeth, a Johnson County election official, said he worries that the bill will cause anyone who has mail delivery problems or who made a mistake on their ballots not have enough time to correct them. 

Nothing in this law makes it impossible for someone to vote but anyone who might have one setback may not be able to get it done,” Deeth said. 

This year, because of the pandemic Deeth said, the Johnson County mail delivery services made extra stops and worked overtime in order to return all election ballots in time. Only 33 ballots came in after polls closed, but in 2016 that number was 117 and he said that number is more representative of the average year. 

By changing the polls closing time from 9 p.m. to 8 p.m. and decreasing the number of days for absentee voting, Deeth said that it makes election night that much harder on poll workers and those at the auditor’s office. 

“I am proud of the work we do, but everything with the elections is back loaded,” Deeth said.  “There is no less work but we will have less days. The hours that we spend [trying to finalize results] will increase and more mistakes will happen.”

Johnson County Democratic Party Chair Ed Cranston said that the bill is unnecessary and does not actually address any problems that might exist in the election system. 

Cranston said Republican legislators did not make an effort to consider public opinion, despite a public hearing that was held on Feb. 22. He said that they were not looking for a discussion, and rather they wanted to fast-track the bill. 

During the public hearing, more than 1,000 Iowans signed up in opposition to the bill and people who spoke against the bill during the hearing expressed concerns of voter suppression. 

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, who introduced the bill, said during his final remarks in a House floor debate that Iowans not having faith in our election process is in itself voter disenfranchisement. 

Kaufmann said that when this bill is implemented, Iowans will still have an easy experience voting, but it will add security and certainty to the process. He said that the bill allows for 493 hours of early voting, saying that is plenty of time. 

“This bill does not suppress one single vote,” Kaufmann said during the floor debate. “Repetition does not create reality… You don’t get to say something so many times that it magically becomes the case.” 

With this bill, election misconduct or technical infractions will be made a felony rather than a misdemeanor and Cranston said that this shows vindictiveness against Iowa auditors who were simply trying to make it easier for people to vote. 

As previously reported by The Daily Iowan, three Iowa auditors faced legal action in September 2020 for sending prepopulated ballots to voters in their counties. 

Linn County Auditor Joel Miller said the Iowa State Association of County Auditors, a group consisting of both Democrat and Republican auditors, were united in an effort to oppose the bill. 

Miller was one of the Iowa auditors tried for a technical infraction made during the election. Under SF413, the Iowa Secretary of State can levy infractions on any person who is suspected to have committed one, but Miller said that until the state government defines the rules, he and other auditors will not know what is okay. 

“You’re giving a lot of power to a single individual to levy a technical infraction for a rule that they might have just made up the day before the election or on election day for that matter,” Miller said. “

Miller said that he is worried that this bill will cause Iowa to lose auditors and other election officials. 

Another provision to the bill limits each Iowa county to one drop box, and Deeth said that this is a big concern for anyone who does not live in a more populated area like Iowa CIty. 

Deeth said that these changes to Iowa’s election process will hurt rural counties much more than it will hurt larger counties like Johnson County. He said that mail delivery takes longer in rural counties and this bill creates a “one size fits all” election process that doesn’t work. 

“We have the resources necessary to get people voting, but the small counties with small offices don’t have the resources to get extra help to do the work in less time,” Deeth said. 

Fesler said that it’s uncertain exactly how this bill will affect people until the next election, but any problems can be looked into and the law can be updated. 

“I think people did a great job at addressing any concerns from the past election. We take a look at what happens in 2022 and 2024 to see how things are run and make any further changes that need to be made,” Fesler said.