DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Monday signed into law a Republican-backed bill that makes it harder to vote early, potentially eroding a key aspect of Democratic campaigns.
Republicans in the House and Senate quickly approved the voting changes over the opposition of all Democratic legislators. Republicans said the new rules were needed to guard against voting fraud, though they noted Iowa has no history of election irregularities and that November's election saw record turnout with no hint of problems in the state.
Reynolds said election integrity must be protected, claiming the law provides election officials with consistent parameters for Election Day, absentee voting and database maintenance
“All of these additional steps promote more transparency and accountability, giving Iowans even greater confidence to cast their ballot,” she said in a statement after signing the bill.
Democrats said they’re examining their reliance on early voting. In the last election, more than 70% of Democrats voted early.
“We don’t have to wait to get people registered to vote. We don’t have to wait to have Democrats talking with their neighbors in rural and metropolitan areas in the state about how these harmful pieces of legislation are being forced through,” said Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Ross Wilburn.
The law shortens the early voting period to 20 days from the current 29, just three years after Republicans reduced the period from 40 days. It also requires 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.
Voting sites will close at 8 p.m. rather than 9 p.m., and county election officials are banned from sending out absentee ballot request forms unless requested. Satellite voting sites also can only be set up if enough voters petition for one, and 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.
Wilburn said he is talking with the Democratic National Committee about strategies, noting that Republicans across the country are pushing for similar restrictions after former President Donald Trump blamed early voting for his election loss to Democrat Joe Biden.
Although there is no evidence of systematic fraud, lawmakers in 43 states are debating about 200 bills that would limit ballot access, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy group.
“What is unique about this year is the volume of bills we are seeing to restrict voting access and the brazenness of the efforts to go after methods of voting that are historically uncontroversial and popular with voters and clearly make it harder for people to cast ballots,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, a lawyer in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.
Political strategist Brenda Kole said Democrats may need to rely more on an old-school approach of volunteers giving people rides to the polls. Kole, who has worked on presidential and gubernatorial campaigns in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, said the party must educate voters about the new restrictions.
“I think that they’ll just adjust their plans and work with what they have to work with,” Kole said.
Democrats may put more emphasis on getting people to vote early in person rather than rely as heavily on mail ballots, said Emily Parcell, who managed Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory in Indiana and is now a partner at Wildfire Contact, a Des Moines-based political consultancy.
The tighter deadlines for mail ballots will be a problem if Postal Service issues aren’t worked out, said Parcell, who focuses on direct mail for campaigns nationwide. A requirement that only close relatives, household member or caregivers can drop off ballots means an end to a common practice of church members, friends or neighbors helping early voters, she said.
But Parcell’s biggest concern was the move to close polls an hour early.
“It creates a challenge for anybody in the state that has a full-time job and doesn’t work in the city where they live,” she said.
Despite Democrats’ concerns, House Speaker Pat Grassley said he and his Republican colleagues are responding to concerns by their constituents and think potential problems have been overblown.
“I actually look at it from the standpoint that I have faith in Iowans and believe that they are completely capable of getting their ballot requested, getting their ballot turned in or going on the day to vote in which our timelines are not outside the norms and the averages across the country,” Grassley said.
Although opposed to the Iowa measure, Greg Speed, president of the Democratic-leaning America Votes, also expressed optimism the party would adjust.
“Democrats and progressives are very, very good at voter engagement, and voter education,” Speed said. “And we will be back, post-pandemic, knocking on doors, talking directly to our voters about how they will be able to safely, securely cast their vote, even as we fight back against all these suppression efforts.”
Parts of the Iowa law would be blunted by an election bill approved by the U.S. House last week that would require states to automatically register eligible voters and limit states’ ability to purge registered voters from their rolls. However, that bill’s prospects in the Senate appear dim.