Election officials would have more time to send mail-in ballots to voters under a bill who advanced Tuesday in the Iowa House of Representatives. It comes less than a year after Republican lawmakers voted to dramatically reduce the time allowed to vote by mail.
Prior to changes to the Elections Act last year, county auditors could begin mailing mail-in ballots 29 days before Election Day. Under current law, they can start mailing mail-in ballots 20 days before Election Day.
Rep. Dennis Bush, R-Cleghorn, sponsored a bill this would allow county election officials to begin mailing out ballots three business days before that.
Clayton County Auditor Jennifer Garms is president of the Iowa State Association of County Auditors, which supports the change. She said there were security issues when election officials tried to send out ballots and handle in-person early voting at the same time in a shorter timeframe.
“We don’t have a lot of office space,” Garms said. “So we usually end up having to move our ballots to another office or put them in cages and take them completely out of the building. We don’t want these newsletters leaving our offices, period.
Garms said the extra time would allow county auditors to get the bulk of the ballots mailed to the post office and to voters before people start coming to the auditor’s office to vote early in anybody. She said it would also help reduce errors by her staff and save the county money by not having to employ temporary staff.
Ringgold County Auditor Amanda Waske also said the 20 days to mail in ballots and vote early in person were a problem.
“It creates a lot of confusion when [voters] don’t think they get their ballots,” Waske said. “So they come in wanting to vote early in person when their ballot has already been mailed out.”
Waske said voters are asked to return their unvoted ballot to the verifier, but they don’t always do so. She said this presented a security issue.
County auditors had raised those concerns with lawmakers last year before Republicans made sweeping changes to state election laws, but the legislature pushed ahead with the changes. At the time, leading proponents of the changes said they were needed to improve election integrity. But they also said they didn’t know of any issues with election integrity in Iowa, and they never discussed how giving less time to vote would make elections safer.
The three Republican lawmakers at Tuesday’s meeting said they supported cutting that part of last year’s election bill. voted for last year’s bill. No Democrat voted for it.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday’s subcommittee expressed concerns about how some of the changes affect absentee voting.
Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, said she sent in a mail-in ballot request last year that took seven days to travel from Des Moines to Davenport, and missed the deadline.
She said she would like to see five more days to vote by mail instead of three. Winckler also said she would like to overturn the law that requires mail-in ballots to be received by county auditors before polls close on Election Day. Previously, voters could put their ballots in the mail the day before Election Day and they would be counted a few days later if they were marked with a barcode indicating when it was sent.
“We shortened the front-end, and we also really cut off ballot access on the back-end,” Winckler said.
Rep. Rob Bacon, R-Slater, said he would be willing to co-sponsor an amendment to give an additional five days, as he said the postal service was not as fast as it used to be.
“And your other issues, too, with the barcode and all – very legitimate from what I hear,” Bacon told Winckler.
But Rep. Bush, the bill’s sponsor, said the Senate would not support an additional five working days.
“At three, we still have a fighting chance,” Bush said. “That’s why it was written that way.”
A spokesperson for Senate Republicans said that does not represent their position and that the Senate GOP is content with current voting laws.
Rep. Jane Bloomingdale, R-Northwood, joined Bacon and Winckler in pushing the bill forward.