Legislators propose changes to election regulations

ElectionThe General Assembly wants to tinker with how elections operate in Iowa.

Since the opening of the 2015 session, there have been five bills relating to the electoral process offered in the House and Senate. They range from a bill to allow small cities to hold their municipal elections by absentee ballot only to a wholesale change to how elections are funded in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.


Primary Runoffs

Senate File 10, offered up by state Sen. Brad Zaun (R-Urbandale), would require runoff primary elections whenever there is an “inconclusive” primary election. Iowa law requires a candidate to have at least 35 percent of the vote to win a primary election.

When no candidate reaches the 35-percent threshold, a convention is held to determine the winner. U.S. Rep. David Young was the fifth-place finisher in the June primary election last year, but won the Republican nomination after several ballots at a district convention.

Zaun took first place in the primary with 24.8 percent, followed by Robert Cramer, who had 21.3 percent, and former Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, who had 19.9 percent. Iowa Renewable Fuels Association executive director Monte Shaw came in fourth with 17 percent, while Young had just 15.5 percent of the vote.

Senate File 10, if enacted as drafted, would replace the nominating conventions with a runoff primary election between the top two vote recipients. The bill also states that a write-in candidate who comes in either first or second place would be placed on the runoff ballot as an official candidate.

The bill would also automatically set the date of the runoff as four weeks after the primary election. In Iowa, primary elections are held on the first Tuesday not the first day of the month in June of the year of the general election.

An “if practicable” clause is included for the years when Independence Day would fall on the fourth week after the June primary election.


Publicly Funded Elections

House File 27, offered up by state Rep. Bruce Hunter (D-Des Moines), would create a mechanism for publicly funded election campaigns, and would establish contribution limits for candidates who opt out of the publicly funded process.

The bill creates a fund called the Voter-Owned Iowa Clean Elections (VOICE) Fund, which will be funded through several mechanisms, including $10 million each year from the sale of lost or unclaimed property.

It also creates a new Iowa Income Tax check-off in the amount of $5. Taxpayers may also claim a maximum deductibility of $200 from Iowa income taxes for political contributions.

It also creates eligibility procedures for both party and independent candidates to become participating candidates, and specifies the number of and details for collection of qualifying contributions.

Under the bill, if any candidate who begins accepting benefits during the primary campaign period must continue to comply with the requirements of the public financing process, even if he or she stops accepting benefits from the program at any point during the primary or general election process. Candidates would also be prohibited from accepting private funding other than permitted party funding.

House File 27 would also limit the use of personal funds for seed money, or as qualifying contributions, as well as political party contributions and expenditures on behalf of participating candidates. The bill limits private contributions to be used as seed money to no more than $100 per adult.

It also limits, in aggregate, in differing amounts for various statewide offices and for General Assembly offices. It also limits seed money expenditures to the clean election campaign qualifying period and seed money contributions and expenditures must be fully disclosed at the end of the public financing qualifying period.

The bill also creates new obligations for participating candidates, including specified amounts of public funding, mandatory participation in debates, and additional limited public funding to respond to certain excess expenditures by non-participating candidates, independent expenditures, and electioneering communications expenditures. It also creates a schedule of payments to participating candidates.

It also specifies what expenses campaign funds may be used for and that nonparticipating candidates must disclose within 48 hours every expenditure in excess of $1,000 more than the public financing funding allocated to the candidate’s participating opponent. Those who make certain independent expenditures must report such expenditures, along with an affidavit affirming that the expenditure has not been coordinated with the candidate or party.

House File 27 would also require the state create voter information guides that include candidate biographical material, policy statements, voting records, and whether the candidate funds the campaign with public or private money.

If the bill is passed as written, the sections of the bill enacting the income tax check-off, the exemption from the individual income tax, and the fund transfers would take effect Jan. 1, 2016. The remainder of the bill would take effect Nov. 7, 2018, to allow the public financing process to commence with a new campaign cycle.

The Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters of Iowa have both made lobbyist declarations in support of the proposed legislation.


Electronic Voter Registration

House File 28, offered up by state Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell (D-Ames), would allow for electronic voter registration.

Electronic voter registration forms would be available on the Iowa Secretary of State’s website under the proposed legislation. The electronic forms would include all of the same information provided on current paper registration forms, and would require the use of a Iowa driver’s license, non-driver identification care, Social Security number, or other identifying number assigned to the voter for registration purposes.

It also requires that a registrant attest to a statement that lists each voter registration eligibility requirement, and that the registrant meets all of the requirements. The electronic signature provided to the Iowa Department of Transportation will be used for electronic voter registration, and if it cannot be used, notice will be mailed to the registrant within five days, along with a paper form to sign and return.

Electronic voter registration registrants who have not previously voted in an election for federal office in the county of registration must provide identification documents when voting for the first time in the county, unless the registrant provided an Iowa driver’s license number or nonoperator identification card number, or the last four digits of his or her Social Security number, and it matches existing state or federal identification records. Those who vote absentee for the first time must provide a photocopy of the identification documents with their ballots.

Lobbyist declarations in support of HF 28 include Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund, Interfaith Alliance of Iowa Action Fund, and the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club.


Straight-Party Voting

House File 4, offered up by state Rep. Peter Cownie (R-West Des Moines), would eliminate the practice of straight-party voting in Iowa. The bill, if approved, would only apply to general elections, or elections in which more than one partisan office is to be filled.

Lobbyist declarations against the bill include the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Iowa State Education Association, and AFSCME Iowa Council 61. The League of Women Voters of Iowa and the Polk County Board of Supervisors are both undecided on the proposed legislation.


Absentee City Elections

House File 29, offered up by Hunter, would allow cities with populations of less than 200 to conduct their municipal elections entirely by absentee ballot.

Cities who wish to conduct their elections in such a manner would be required to notify the county commissioner of elections (County Auditor) of their decisions. Then, each active status registered voter in the city will be mailed an absentee ballot request form no fewer than 25 days before each regular or special city election. Each request form mailing will include a self-addressed, return-postage paid envelope, and a notice that in-person voting will be allowed at the county commissioner of election’s office on Election Day.

There have been no lobbyist declarations in support of or against the proposed legislation.