BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – New laws passed by the Iowa Legislator have reduced the amount of time and the exposure voters have to absentee ballots, as well as time at the polls, and Lee County Auditor Denise Fraise said that equates to voter suppression.
A number of new election laws have impacted several facets of voting this year including the time you have to request an absentee ballot, the time you have to return the ballot, and who can return the ballot on behalf of a voter.
“This is voter suppression. It’s sure making it harder for voters,” Fraise said.
Fraise is going on her eighth year as county auditor and 25th year overseeing voting in Lee County. She said this is the most substantial stepping down of voter rights she’s seen in her time in public service.
“I’ve been doing elections since 1996, this is the biggest step down I’ve ever seen, with the most changes. I just think what they put in there about us being fined $10,000 or facing jail is just ridiculous. They don’t do that to any other elected official if they do something wrong. They’re just picking on auditors is what they’re doing because of what happened in those three counties.”
Fraise was referring to Woodbury, Johnson and Linn counties where county auditors there sent out ballot request forms that had personal information already filled in on the forms.
“That’s what set fire to all of this,” Fraise said.
“This is a result, I truly believe, of the infractions of those three other counties. That’s the way I see it. Iowa wasn’t the only state that did this either. Other states did it too and I’m really hoping the feds do something. They last time they did anything was the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 and federal rules would overrule the state in elections.”
The Voting Rights Act was the federal government, under President Lyndon Johnson, stepping in to prevent racial discrimination in election processes.
Some of the bigger changes, in addition to language that allows for the fine and jailing of auditors found conducting elections contrary to new and existing state law, is closing all state polling locations at 8 p.m., and new requirement that all ballots be in the county auditor’s possession by 8 p.m. on election day.
The county can no longer send out absentee request forms unless voters personally request such a form, and the time that people can request an absentee ballot shrunk from 120 days to just 70 days.
“The first day we can even start to mail out the absentee ballots themselves is now just 20 days before election day,” Fraise said.
“So the best advice I can give you is to get that ballot back here right away. Fill it out when you get it, and mail it right back or get it down here.”
“We have to have the ballot in our office by 8 p.m. the day of the election. Postmarks on mail mean nothing anymore,” she said.
The ballot drop boxes that are attached to the county buildings in Keokuk and Fort Madison will also no longer be in use.
Fraise said she could have used the ballot boxes, but the new law requires that the boxes be checked at least four times per day including weekends.
“I would have had to pay someone to just drive back and forth between Fort Madison and Keokuk checking those boxes seven days a week. I’m not going to do that. And I’m still not entirely sure if I could use both locations or just one.”
She said State Sen. Jeff Reichman pushed that issue with the Secretary of State’s office and was told the county could use boxes at both locations.
Fraise said anyone that cannot get physically get out of their vehicle to turn in a ballot, can call the auditor’s office at 319-372-3705.
Other changes include closing all polls in the state at 8 p.m. Lee County used to keep polls open until 9 p.m.
All voters must be registered 15 days in advance if they want their names to appear on the registered voter list at the polls. Voters can still vote if not on that list, but they need to bring a proof of identity, which everyone is required to bring, but also a proof of residence.
State law also now prohibits the county from bulk mailing to county residents of an absentee ballot request. All ballot requests must be made personally to the auditor’s office.
Fraise said political action committees and parties could still send out absentee ballot request forms through the mail, as has been the case in past elections.
Another change is the only people that can return an absentee ballot for a voter is someone living in the voter’s household, an immediate family member, or in the case of a blind voter of voter with another disability, a special delivery agent. More information on those exceptions can be found at the following link: https://www.blackhawkcounty.iowa.gov/DocumentCenter/View/6114/2021-Election-Law-Changes-for-Iowa-Voters
In addition the city/school elections set for November 2, Keokuk schools has a special school bond election on September 14.