Until recently, voting by mail has been a largely unremarkable, nonpartisan aspect of American election administration. Two-thirds of the states, as well as the District of Columbia, allow no-excuse absentee voting; five of those states, including ruby-red Utah and deep-blue Hawaii, hold elections almost exclusively by mail. This year, however, President Donald Trump launched a crusade against vote-by-mail, urging states to reject the practice due to his dubious belief that it hurts Republican politicians. Now it seems Trump’s attacks have begun to work: On Wednesday, the GOP-controlled Iowa Senate voted to abolish the secretary of state’s authority to ensure that every eligible voter has a chance to receive and return a mail-in ballot.
Iowa currently allows all voters to cast their ballot through the mail without requiring an excuse for why they cannot make it to the polls. But before 2020, the state did not send an absentee ballot application to all voters, widely considered the gold standard of election administration. (An application is not a ballot but merely invites a voter to request an absentee ballot—a fact lost on some conservatives.) This spring, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, decided to make mail-in voting easier in light of the coronavirus pandemic. To protect “the safety of voters while casting their ballots,” Pate sent out absentee ballot applications to every registered voter, a step permitted (though not mandated) by current law. The plan was a smashing success: June’s election shattered turnout records, and 80 percent of voters cast their ballot by mail. There is no evidence that Pate’s actions led to fraud, delays, or confusion.
Alarmed by this expansion of the franchise, Republican state legislators drew up a bill to stop Pate from sending out absentee ballot applications for November’s general election. The bill’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Roby Smith, declared that he sought to impose “checks and balances” on Pate. He also suggested, without evidence, that expanded absentee voting would lead to fraud. Smith’s measure would force Iowans to request an absentee ballot by sending a formal, written request to the state along with proof of valid voter ID. In an apparent stab at balance, Smith also barred counties from reducing the number of in-person polling places by more than 35 percent. (Although some Iowa counties did consolidate precincts for the primary, they avoided lengthy lines because most residents voted by mail.)
Pate has refused to apologize for helping more people vote. “My goal was to protect Iowa voters and poll workers while finding ways to conduct a clean and fair election,” the secretary of state announced in a statement. “We had record high turnout for a June primary. Iowans did not let COVID-19 prevent them from voting. I stand by my decisions.”
Every Senate Democrat strongly opposed Smith’s bill and voted against it on Tuesday. They were joined by just two Republicans, but it was not enough to prevent its passage. The measure will now go to the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. Gov. Kim Reynolds has not yet indicated whether she’ll sign it but did say she thought Pate’s decision to send out applications proactively was “fine.”
On Thursday, I asked Iowa state Sen. Zach Wahls, a Democrat who helped lead the fight against Smith’s bill, why he thought the Legislature was rushing to pass a restriction on absentee voting during a pandemic. The move, Wahls told me, was “straight out of the Donald Trump playbook.” Trump—who votes by mail himself, and appears to have committed fraud on his Florida registration form—has spent months rallying Republicans against mail-in voting. He has candidly acknowledged that he fears increased vote by mail will help Democrats win more elections, a contention unsupported by data.
Many Republican officials are ignoring Trump and urging voters to mail in their ballots anyway. After all, state bureaucrats will be the ones on the hook if elections go sideways; several primaries have already descended into chaos due to an unmet demand for mail-in voting. Others, including Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, have taken their cues from the president. Paxton, who has voted by mail in the past, fought several lawsuits that sought to let every Texan vote by mail in 2020 due the pandemic. He even threatened to prosecute voters who used COVID-19 as an excuse to vote absentee. The Texas Supreme Court, which met remotely to protect the justices from the coronavirus, sided with Paxton, prohibiting Texans from voting by mail to protect themselves from the coronavirus. Iowa Republicans are now joining Paxton and Trump in vilifying and limiting vote by mail.
It remains unclear whether restricting absentee voting actually helps Republicans politically. What’s certain is that voters of both parties enjoy having the option of easily casting a ballot from their own homes. Republicans have put forth no legitimate reason why they should lose this benefit. The only purpose of Smith’s bill is to make voting more difficult—and, perhaps, to appease a president who has convinced much of his party that the GOP cannot survive a free and fair election.
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