Why change early voting in Iowa?

There’s an odd provision in the voter identification law approved last year by the Iowa Legislature and signed by Gov. Reynolds.

The provision reduces the length of time for early voting.

Prior to the new law, citizens could vote early starting 40 days before Election Day. The new law moved the early voting start date to 29 days before Election Day.

I wondered why that change was made. So this week I tried to find out.

I started with the Greene County Auditor’s Office, which handles elections in the county. I asked Auditor Jane Heun if she had been informed why the change was made.

“I was surprised when I learned about it,” she said.

Neither she nor election deputy auditor Billie Hoskins can recall being given any explanation for the change by state election officials. Heun doesn’t think that county auditors of the state had made any such recommendation.

I next called the office of the Iowa Secretary of State, which is in charge of Iowa elections.

There I was routed to a helpful staff person, who said that calls from the media are generally handled by the office media staffer. He was not in his office that afternoon, but was expected in the morning. She added that he had handled that question several times before.

So while I waited to get my return phone call from him, I tried to contact Greene County’s two legislators. Both are Republicans, and would have cast their votes with the GOP majorities in favor of the bill. But I got voicemail at the homes of both state Sen. Jerry Behn and state Rep. Chip Baltimore.

On my call to the Secretary of State’s office, I asked the helpful staff person if the new law, which was adopted by the 2017 General Assembly, was handled by the state government committees in the House and Senate. She confirmed that it was.

So I Googled the state legislature website to identify the two chairs of the state government committees. (Since the Legislature has a Republican majority, committee chairs are also Republican.)

The House state government committee chair last year was Rep. Ken Rizer of Linn County. He resigned from the Legislature five weeks ago, but when I reached him on his home phone he confirmed that he had sponsored the voter ID bill on the House floor.

Rizer explained that there were several reasons why shortening the early voting period was inserted into the bill. For one, he said, Iowa was among the 10 states that had the earliest start dates for early voting in the nation. Most states either have a shorter period or don’t allow early voting at all, or only for strictly limited purposes.

Another reason, he said, was that a longer earlier voting period can render some voters’ votes meaningless.

For instance, if a candidate were to drop out of the election around, say, 35 days before the election, voters who cast their votes for him or her around 40 days before Election Day would essentially have been disenfranchised in that race.

Rizer cited Nate Boulton’s decision to quit his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for governor in late May as an example of that concern.

Boulton’s decision came only 13 days before the June 5 primary election, but had his announcement been made three weeks earlier, the former law would have deprived a number of early voters of their vote for an actual candidate. The new law would have let them cast their vote instead for one of the remaining Democratic candidates.

Rizer also said that campaigns in Iowa have started too early and run for too long, and he hoped that shortening the early voting period might shorten the campaign cycle. He knows of no research that’s likely to be conducted to test that theory.

Rizer noted that opponents of the new voter ID law object that a shorter early voting period will make it more difficult for some Iowans to vote. He described that objection as “bunk.”

Rizer’s counterpart in the Iowa Senate is Sen. Roby Smith of Scott County, chair of the Senate state government committee. Rizer said he negotiated the details of the new voter ID law with Smith so that both houses would consider the same wording on their respective floors.

I tried to reach Smith by phone, but got voicemail at his home.

On the other hand, I was able to reach Deidre DeJear, who won the Democratic primary for Secretary of State against Jim Mowrer, and will square off against incumbent Republican Paul Pate in November. I asked her what she thought of the shortened early voting period.

DeJear said she is “a huge fan” of early voting, and she believes the shortened period will indeed result in fewer people casting votes.

She noted that the June primary election this year had the third highest turnout in Iowa’s history, but despite that fact, only 13 percent of the state’s registered voters bothered to cast votes.

DeJear pointed out that Iowa is “a huge snowbird state,” and that some of the Iowans who go south for the winter leave before Oct. 10 or so, which would be the start of the early voting period for the November general election under the new law. Those folks would not be able to cast a vote before they go.

And as for the June primary election, she said, 29 days before that Election Day hits, many college students are right in the middle of final exam week or, in the case of Iowa State and some other colleges, during graduation week. After graduation, the grads leave town and are not as likely to make the effort to fill out a ballot in their county of college residence.

College students are the most transient portion of our population, DeJear said.

If the start of early voting had remained at 40 days prior, students would be more likely to think about participating in the election.

“Iowa has not supported get-out-the-vote efforts,” DeJear summed up.

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