Iowa Capitol

DES MOINES — Citing COVID-19 concerns, legislative leaders on Friday said they will allow Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate to mail absentee voter request forms for the Nov. 3 general election to all of the state’s registered voters.

Friday’s unanimous vote was an about-face for majority Republicans who had opposed Pate’s decision to mail the forms to Iowans before the June primary, which saw record turnout.

“We want as many people as possible to vote,” Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said. “We want this election to be as accessible as possible, we need it to be predictable for campaigns, we need it to be uniform across the state so Iowans in every county are treated the same, and we need it to be as secure as possible. This proposal accomplishes all of those things.”

However, Democrats on the 24-member Legislative Council said that stance was a shift from last month’s session when majority Republicans voted to force Pate to seek the council’s approval if he planned a similar emergency statewide mailing in the future.

“I’m glad majority Republicans are no longer mad at Paul Pate,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, who tried unsuccessfully to get council members to agree to extend the period for absentee balloting before the Nov. 3 general election from 29 days to 40 days.

Due to coronavirus pandemic concerns among Iowans who prefer a vote-from-home option rather than stand in line at a polling place, some county auditors had begun printing absentee ballot request forms — some with “pre-populated” information on the form filled in for the voter.

However, GOP council members, who met via teleconference Friday, agreed with Pate’s call for them to prevent county auditors from doing that along with sending information on how Iowans who lack a driver’s license can get a four-digit voter ID number. They want only blank request forms sent.

A new state law instructs county auditors on how they may confirm and correct information on the absentee request forms they receive but that change currently is being challenged in court.

Democrats tried unsuccessfully to allow county auditors to proceed with their separate absentee ballot request mailings, but Whitver argued that Iowans need confidence that election laws will be uniform, secure and free from fraud across the state.

“You won’t have 18 counties sending out absentee requests and 81 not sending them out,” he said. “All Iowa voters will have access to an absentee ballot request, no matter the county they live in.”

Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, said it is GOP legislators who have “muddied the process.”

Rep. Chris Hall, D-Sioux City, said Republicans have to “eager to meddle” with the election system in an effort to confuse voters with changes.

And Rep. Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, accused the Republican leaders of engaging in “scare tactics” aimed at misleading the public.

After lawmakers approved Pate’s request, representatives of his office said they planned to begin work on finalizing the blank absentee ballot request forms, hopefully by the end of the month, and launching an effort to promote the vote-from-home option for the Nov. 3 election.

“I want Iowa voters and poll workers to be safe during this pandemic while we conduct a clean, fair and secure election,” Pate said in a statement after the meeting.

“After consulting with all 99 county auditors, I believe the best way to accomplish that goal is by mailing an absentee ballot request form to every active registered voter in the state,” he said. “Voters will still have the option of casting their ballot in person, and we will provide resources to protect Iowans who choose that method.

“This process worked great in the June primary, and I believe it will work in the general election.”

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