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Barbs fly (again) during House absentee ballot debate

BallotBy Bob Eschliman
Editor

 

Tuesday was a fairly wild day in the Iowa Statehouse, but on Wednesday, in the Iowa House of Representatives cranked the intensity up another notch.

The House remained calm through the first three of four bills it debated, House File 447, House File 468, and House File 496. Those bills passed on votes of 93-2, 92-2, and 95-0, respectively.

But when legislators took up House File 506, a bill to change absentee ballot deadlines, the atmosphere quickly changed. Democrats charged the bill would disenfranchise voters, particularly the elderly, low-income workers, and racial minorities, while Republicans defended the bill – which has been suggested in form or another for several years by the Iowa State Association of County Auditors – as providing a “firm deadline” for the receipt of absentee ballots.

County auditors serve as the commissioner of elections in their respective counties. Under current law, an absentee ballot received is only valid if it is received before polls close on Election Day, or if it is “clearly postmarked” not later than the day before the election and received not later than noon on the Monday following the election, the day before the election is officially canvassed.

Under HF 506, an absentee ballot must be received before polls close on Election Day to be valid. It includes an exception for military and overseas voters, whose ballots would still be accepted until noon on the Monday before the election is canvassed.

During his introduction of the bill, floor manager state Rep. Quentin Stanerson (R-Center Point) said the bill is meant to deal with an ongoing issue many county auditors face when receiving absentee ballots that have not been properly postmarked. During committee hearings on the bill, a sampling of several counties showed thousands of ballots that had not been counted due to existing law.

State Rep. Bruce Hunter (D-Des Moines) filed an amendment, however, to allow ballots that do not have distinguishable postmarks to be accepted through Election Day, while those with distinguishable postmarks from Election Day or thereafter could be accepted up to the time of the election canvass. He said his amendment would make HF 506 conform to a Senate bill under consideration on the same issue.

State Rep. Vicki Lensing (D-Iowa City) then filed an amendment to Hunter’s amendment to require all 99 county auditors to report to the Office of Secretary of State the number of uncounted absentee ballots. The Secretary of State would then be required to report the statewide total to the General Assembly after each election.

Stanerson objected to the amendment, saying he feared it would allow ballots cast after Election Day to be counted. Hunter countered, saying he wasn’t aware of any post office that could provide same-day delivery, meaning any ballots received by a county auditor must have been sent the day before, at the very latest.

The amendment failed on a 55-40 vote. After that measure failed, Democrats turned up the heat, occasionally launching personal attacks on Republican legislators. As was the case Tuesday, legislators were called to well more than once to discuss rules of decorum during debate.

State Rep. Mary Mascher (D-Iowa City) said HF 506 reminded her of the Orwellian novella “Animal Farm,” stating the military and overseas exemptions made “some people more equal than others.” She entered into a colloquy with state Rep. Todd Prichard (D-Charles City), who is an Iraq combat veteran, to demonstrate that she did not feel members of the military “think that way.”

“We shouldn’t be carving out different classes of individuals,” she said. “That doesn’t reflect what Iowans stand for.”

Hunter next rose in opposition to the bill, noting that in the November 2014 General Election, there were 472,374 absentee ballots collected, received, and counted. Following the canvass, that number rose by more than 3,000 – all of which would not have counted under HF 506, he argued.

Having difficulty holding back his anger, Hunter said it would be a “sad day in Iowa” if the bill was adopted.

“When we disenfranchise 3,000 voters, I get a little upset,” he said. “That’s not right in the State of Iowa … turn this piece of garbage down.”

State Rep. Deborah Berry (D-Waterloo) invoked the recent 50th anniversary of the civil rights march at Selma, which was held in an effort to gain equal voting rights in the South for all people, regardless of race. She then broke into tears as she discussed how her father “didn’t always have the right to vote, and now others have a chance of not having their ballot counted again.”

State Rep. Mary Gaskill (D-Ottumwa) said she was disappointed that Hunter’s amendment failed, which she said would have been “more equitable” than the original version of the bill. She said she believed as many votes as possible should be counted in each election.

State Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad (D-Des Moines) called it a “sad commentary” that the issue of people’s right to vote was still being talked about in 2015. He remembered “fighting for the right to vote” when he was younger, and lamented that today’s youth “feel disconnected” by the voting process.

“Here in this chamber, we say we want equal justice, but then we vote to make it harder for some people to vote,” he said. “I believe this bill was offered with good intentions, but sometimes intentions don’t hit the mark.”

House Minority Leader Mark Smith (D-Marshalltown) launched into another attack on the military and overseas exemptions in the bill, saying they created a “double standard.” He used the example for Ringgold County in the 2014 General Election in which more than 700 absentee ballots were received, but fewer than 40 were postmarked.

“This bill is poorly crafted; so poorly crafted, it has created a rift with members of my caucus,” he said. “The right to vote is sacred for many … vote against this bill.”

State Rep. Ken Rizer (R-Cedar Rapids), who is a military veteran, then entered into a colloquy with Stanerson to discuss their recollections of absentee voting while in the military. He said there wasn’t anything in the bill that disenfranchised members of the military, which elicited a point-of-order from Democrats.

“It’s our personal responsibility to get our vote in on time,” he said. “If a military family in Marshalltown [a reference to a comment from Smith] wanted to make sure their vote counted, they could just go to the polls and vote.

State Rep. Chris Hagenow (R-Windsor Heights), who worked on earlier versions of HF 506 in previous general assemblies, said the problem the bill attempts to address is one “not of any legislator’s making.” He said he felt both Republicans and Democrats understand “there is an issue here.”

“Regardless of whatever directive there might be from the U.S. Postal Service, ballots are not being postmarked,” he said. “We have to find a solution, although it might not be the perfect solution. We’re not setting out to disenfranchise anyone; that’s offensive on its face.”

Hagenow noted the bill was brought to the General Assembly by county auditors, not Republican legislators. He said if the auditors were attempting to disenfranchise voters, “we have a whole lot bigger issue here.”

State Rep. Larry Sheets (R-Moulton) likened the act of voting to consummating a marriage, and declared it just as sacred an act. He said he believed Hunter’s amendment would make HF 506 a better bill, and said he could not support the measure without the amendment.

Later in the debate, state Rep. Dave Jacoby (D-Coralville) entered into a colloquy with Hagenow, which boiled over into a very heated exchange over whether or noth HF 506 would disenfranchise voters. Hagenow eventually made his own point-of-order with regard to decorum, slamming his microphone down in the process.

After a lengthy discussion in the well, the tone of the debate once again calmed down.

In the final moments of the debate, state Rep. Jerry Kearns (D-Keokuk) expressed his appreciation for Stanerson taking up floor management of the bill. He said his Republican colleague “has been given tough assignment,” but urged the House to not adopt HF 506, and to come back with a new bill – possibly the Senate version – that incorporated Hunter’s amendment.

Prichard closed the debate by noting Democrats and Republicans “want the same thing: more people participating.” He expressed his concerns over the “carve-out” – borrowing a phrase from Mascher – for veterans and overseas voters, and the narrow window voters have to participate in special elections.

He then talked about his experience of serving in Iraq during free elections there, an experience he shared across the aisle with Rizer.

“I also saw purple thumbs,” he said. “Voting is a big deal to a lot of people.”

CLICK HERE to see full video of the HF 506 debate.

 

House File 447

Although the bill sailed through with little opposition, House File 447 gives new, broad authority to law enforcement officers and agencies to have access to cell phone call locations. It would require cellular phone service providers to give that information upon request.

The bill’s floor manager, state Rep. Gary Worthan (R-Storm Lake), spoke in his opening remarks about the case of a woman who was abducted and killed, her body only recovered after law enforcement was finally able to “ping” her cellular phone. He said HF 447 would make it less likely that something like that could ever happen again.

Worthan noted there were concerns about abuse of the power, and said the bill contains language to punish those who misuse it. Under the bill, the penalty would be a serious misdemeanor, but Worthan said law enforcement officials he spoke with said such activity would likely be a firing offense for an officer.

The bill was adopted without further debate.

CLICK HERE to see video of the entire debate session.