An African-American legislator was moved to tears during House debate of a bill that would make changes in Iowa’s Election Law. Representative Deborah Berry, a Democrat from Waterloo, said the bill is “disturbing.”
“This is a very sensitive subject for me because I can even think of — excuse me — my father,” Berry said, pausing as she choked up with tears, “who didn’t always have that right to vote.”
Berry’s father was 40 years old in 1964 when the Voting Rights Act was passed. All but one of the Republicans in the Iowa House approved a bill that says absentee ballots would have to be inside the county auditor’s office before the polls close on Election Day.
Under current law, absentee ballots are to be counted if they have a postmark showing the ballot was mailed the day before Election Day, even if the ballot doesn’t get delivered to the county auditor before the polls close. Many of Iowa’s oldest voters depend on mailing in their ballots, according to Berry.
“And now they have the chance of not having their ballots counted,” Berry said, her voice cracking with emotion. “It’s not fair and it’s not right.”
Republicans say the move is necessary because many absentee ballots are delivered to the county auditor’s office without a postmark. Republican Representative Quentin Stanerson of Center Point cites the case of Ringgold County, where 747 ballots were sent in by mail for the 2014 election, but only 39 of the ballots were postmarked.
“It is time to update the Code of Iowa to make the acceptance of absentee ballots consistent and reliable,” Stanerson said.
The bill establishes what Stanerson called a “sure count deadline” for absentee ballots.
“This bill would ensure voters that all absentee ballots returned to the county auditor’s office before the close of the polls will be counted,” Stanerson said.
Representative Berry said her first thought was the bill was designed to hurt Democratic candidates who have focused on turning out “early” votes through the use of absentee ballots. “It’s not about Democrats or Republicans,” Berry said. “It’s about people who are really trying to vote because they know so many people have died or were denied that right.”
Representative Chris Hagenow, a Republican from Windsor Heights, said the bill’s needed because too many post offices are failing to put a postmark on the envelopes absentee ballots are being mailed in.
“We’re not setting out to disenfranchise anyone. That is offensive on its face,” Hagenow said. “…To have a system to have a system where everyone’s vote counts equally, the first thing we need to have is a system with a consistent set of rules that applies to everyone in every situation.”
And Hagenow said by requiring absentee ballots to be physically inside the auditor’s office before the polls close in order to be counted provides that consistency.