Legislative council at odds over new law limiting Iowa secretary of state’s emergency powers

Iowa News

DES MOINES, Iowa (WHO-TV) — One of the several laws going into effect Wednesday includes one that will limit the Secretary of State’s ability to modify election procedures with emergency powers.

This was a move Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate used during the June primary in response to the coronavirus, which saw record turnout after he used his authority to send absentee ballot request forms to every registered voter in Iowa.

According to the secretary of state’s office, the June 2 primary election had 531,131 votes. It was split close to evenly amongst Republicans and Democrats; 83 percent of Democrats voted absentee, and 72 percent of Republicans voted absentee.

However, under the new law, the secretary of state must receive approval from a group of legislative leaders from the House and Senate before using such powers.

In a Wednesday morning conference call, the legislative council met to discuss a request by Sec. Pate to electronically send ballots to Iowans overseas for the upcoming July 7 special election. This request was also made in response to the coronavirus, specifically because mail has slowed down during the pandemic.

Although the council voted to approve Pate’s request, Democrats reverted to sharp criticism of the law that requires giving the secretary permission.

“We may turn the legislative council into a babysitting club for the secretary of state at the rate we’re going,” Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen said. “I believe we’ve got at least seven special elections in Iowa coming up and if this group has to meet every single time there’s an election to approve the powers of his office it’s simply ridiculous.”

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver argued that Pate’s actions were unprecedented and will not prevent people from voting absentee. He noted that county auditors still have the authority to to send absentee request forms to voters in their jurisdiction, and that campaigns frequently do the same.

“I think the most important thing, the most important message of any of the election laws that we’re doing. It should be safe should be reliable, and it should be predictable,” the Ankeny Republican said. “I have full confidence there is gonna be an abundance of absentee ballot requests in people’s mailboxes this fall as there always is.”

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