The Iowa Legislative Council unanimously approved an emergency directive to give Iowans living overseas the option of returning ballots electronically for July 7 special elections, but not without first returning to a partisan debate lawmakers had in the final hours of their June session.
The approval was needed because of a change legislators made in House File 2486 requiring the Secretary of State to get the council’s approval before changing the conduct of an election during an emergency, such as the coronavirus pandemic.
The global pandemic has disrupted international mail distribution, raising concerns that Iowans living abroad, including those serving in the armed forces, could not receive and return ballots on the usual timeline, according to Secretary of State Paul Pate. The directive is identical to a provision in one of Pate’s emergency directives for the June 2 primary.
The July 7 special elections covered by the council’s action Wednesday include filling vacancies on the Cedar Falls
City Council and the Woodbury County Board of Supervisors.
Although the secretary’s directive was approved 22-0, the panel of 24 legislative leaders split along party lines when Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, offered an amendment to have the secretary use federal CARES Act funds to send an absentee ballot request form to every registered voter ahead of the November general election.
Pate sent the forms ahead of the June 2 primary as part of election officials’ effort to encourage Iowans to vote by absentee ballot rather than in person to help reduce the possibility of spreading COVID-19.
Jochum called the primary a “test run (that) proved quite successful,” with one of the highest turnouts in Iowa primary election history. The 531,131 ballots cast broke the 1994 primary election record of 449,490 votes.
Sending the absentee ballot requests to voters gives them a choice to vote by mail or go to a polling station to cast their vote in person, Jochum said.
“I don’t think we should put people in a position to choose between their health and exercising their right to cast a vote,” she said.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, agreed the primary was successful, but said Jochum’s amendment was a “false choice” because the secretary of state is not the only source of absentee ballot requests.
“Pretty much every campaign that I know is sending one
out, (and) many county auditors are sending out” absentee ballot requests and several
have announced to do that
before the general election, he said.
“So I think there’s a lot of scare tactics going on like the Legislature is preventing people from voting absentee,” he
said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. I have full confidence there’s going to be an abundance of absentee ballot requests in people’s mailboxes this fall.”
Get Government & Politics updates in your inbox!
Stay up-to-date on the latest in local and national government and political topics with our newsletter.