DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa Republicans have approved strict limits on who can assist voters in delivering ballots in a surprise change to state election law hours before adjourning the legislative session.
Legislators approved the restrictions in a party-line vote late Wednesday, just weeks after Iowa became one of the first Republican-run states to extensively rewrite election rules to tighten other aspects of voting, including when ballots can be turned in and how voter rolls are maintained.
Republicans said the changes would enhance the security of voting, though have acknowledged that voting fraud is rare in Iowa and the last election had almost no problems. More than 1 million Iowans voted by absentee ballot in November, a record attributed in part to the pandemic and efforts by election officials to encourage voters to cast ballots at home.
Officials have not released data on how often people other than voters return ballots in Iowa, and supporters of the new restriction didn’t offer examples of practices that have led to fraud.
Republican Sen. Roby Smith, one of the bill’s authors, said ballots are secure once in the custody of election officials but that absentee ballots had few safeguards.
“When it comes to ‘ballot harvesting’ anybody can just walk up and grab it under what was the previous law,” Smith said. “There’s no security when someone can knock on your door and say, ‘Yeah, I’ll return your ballot.’ You don’t know who it is and they can open it up, they can change the vote, they can throw it away, they can shred it.”
Democrats said the measure perpetuates lies from President Donald Trump that the past election was fraudulent.
“I’m tired of this. … Your noses are getting longer,” said Democratic Sen. Tony Bisignano during floor debate. “Seven million votes separated our candidates. I’ve not seen a hundred people charged with election fraud. If it was so rampant, we ought to be seeing it on a daily basis and we’re not, so why do we play this game?”
Ballot collections have come under intense scrutiny this year from Republicans who claim that the practice is rife with fraud or potential problems. Generally, ballots are collected when a voter is unable to return it in person due to disability, distance from an election office, or other issues that would prevent ballots from reaching destinations on time.
Ballot collection laws vary by state. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 26 states allow a voter to designate someone to return their ballot for them and 10 states allow ballots to be returned by family members. Thirteen states don’t have laws specifying who can return a ballot.
Republicans, who refer to ballot collection as “ballot harvesting,” have struggled to cite recent examples of wrongdoing and typically offer vague hypotheticals when explaining the need for restrictions.
The most recent high-profile example of ballot collection fraud concerned a political operative in North Carolina who worked for a Republican congressional candidate in 2018. The operative was accused of directing subordinates to collect blank or incomplete absentee ballots, add false witness signatures and fill in votes. An investigation led to a new congressional election.
Sylvia Albert, voting and elections director for the voter access advocacy group Common Cause, said curtailing ballot collections would hurt those living in rural areas, native communities, nursing homes, colleges and anyone who lives far from polling sites or doesn’t have the economic means to get there.
“Just like everything else, these kinds of illusions and lies about there being problems are being used to suppress access to the ballot for millions of Americans,” she said, referencing the national GOP push to rollback voting rights. “When we don’t allow for access for everyone we’re letting legislators choose their voters, as opposed to letting the voters choose the legislators.”
The Iowa measure says no one can deliver a ballot for another voter unless they live in the same home or are immediate family. It specifies that to deliver a ballot for a blind or disabled voter, a person must register as a delivery agent. The delivery agent must be a registered voter and cannot be an employer of the voter or someone affiliated with the voter’s employer, cannot be a union representative and cannot be someone connected to a political party, candidate or committee.
The delivery agent cannot deliver more than two ballots for another voter in any single election and must sign paperwork acknowledging that providing false information is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the first set of restrictions into law and is expected to sign the new voting changes.
The other law shortened the early voting period from 29 to 20 days and required most mail ballots to be received by Election Day, rather than counting votes postmarked by Election Day that arrive by noon on the Monday following the election. It also required voting sites to close at 8 p.m. rather than 9 p.m., and banned county election officials from sending out absentee ballot request forms unless requested. Voters will be removed from active voting lists if they miss a single general election and don’t report a change in address or register as a voter again.
Izaguirre reported from Lindenhurst, New York.
Associated Press coverage of voting rights receives support in part from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for this content.