Reading Time: 4 minutes

A record number of people voted in Iowa two years ago. Its Republican-controlled legislature and Gov. Kim Reynolds responded by adopting a broad set of limitations last year that put up various roadblocks to absentee and election day voting.

Voting rights advocates have called this legislation a blatant effort to suppress participation in elections after more than 75% of registered voters turned out for the 2020 presidential election. 

The 2021 law includes restrictions on absentee ballot drop boxes, a reduction in the time allotted for early voting, criminalization of some forms of voter turnout organizing, and a more aggressive approach toward voter ID requirements and purging people from the state’s list of registered voters. 

“We are stating that it’s unjust, that (the bill) violates the constitutional right to vote here in Iowa and we want to return back to the way elections were done before this bill was adopted,” said Joe Henry, political director of the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa, which sued to block the changes. The lawsuit is currently pending.

Absentee ballots

After former President Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020, absentee ballot drop boxes became a focus of conspiracy theories about election fraud, despite no evidence, and have been subjected to attacks by the GOP in numerous states, including Georgia and Wisconsin.

Nearly 40 states utilized drop boxes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic during the November 2020 general election, and more voters used them than in any election in U.S. history, according to a report from the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project. 

About this series

This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

Iowa’s new law limits county auditors to only one drop box at their respective offices. Drop boxes were allowed to be placed in high-traffic areas such as grocery stores or public libraries in the 2020 primary, but Iowa’s secretary of state told local officials they could not be used in that year’s general election.

The law limits counties to a single drop box regardless of the geographic size of the county or population. But Iowa counties range in land area from Dickinson County at 381 square miles to Kossuth County at 973 square miles. Meanwhile, Adams County has 3,641 people, while Polk County, which includes Des Moines, has 496,844. But depending on how local officials handled drop boxes two years ago, it won’t be a big change for some voters. In 2020, Polk County actually had zero drop boxes based on a local decision, but will have one going forward.

The boxes are to be equipped with video surveillance systems “which shall be reviewed by the state commissioner, county attorney, and law enforcement in the event that misconduct occurs,” according to the law.  

The new law also reduces the time in which voters can cast absentee ballots in person at their county auditor’s office from up to 29 days before the election to 20 days. More than 1 million Iowans cast absentee ballots either early at a local office or by mail during the 2020 general election – that’s nearly 60% of all votes cast.

County auditors may open satellite early voting locations, but only when formally petitioned by at least 100 eligible voters. 

“The people who are the most vulnerable are the most impacted – the elderly, low-income people, people who don’t have flexible jobs, because the county auditor’s office hours are basically general business hours,” said Veronica Fowler, communications director for the ACLU of Iowa. “If you can’t take off work easily (and) go run to the auditor’s office, that’s a problem.”

Voters will also have one less hour to cast ballots on election day itself, as the new law calls for state and federal election polls to  close at 8 p.m. instead of 9 p.m.

The 2021 law also limits who can deliver a ballot on behalf of another person – restricting it to household or family members, caregivers and election officials assisting with confined voters (a resident or patient in a healthcare facility, assisted living program, or hospital located in the county). If an unauthorized person returns a ballot, they could be charged with a misdemeanor.

“We can no longer as a nonprofit go to the homes of our fellow Latinos to help them with collecting their ballot, either getting it in the mail or taking it directly to the election office,” Henry said. “We’ve never had that type of restriction placed against us.”

Voter purges

The new law also requires Iowa’s secretary of state to reclassify registered voters who did not cast a ballot in the most recent general election to “inactive.” Prior to the law’s adoption, individuals needed to miss two consecutive general elections to be considered inactive.

In 2021, nearly 294,000 Iowans were listed as inactive after the law passed, according to previous reports

So what does this mean?

If a voter is classified as inactive, the state sends a “No Activity” mailing to those who did not vote in the most recent general election. Individuals who do not respond could be removed from the statewide voter registration list.  

As of Aug. 1, there were 1,853,553 registered voters and 366,444 inactive voters in the state. 

Individuals can check their registration status here

Felony voting rights

Iowa has moved toward greater access to voting in at least one area. 

In 2020, Gov. Reyn­olds issued an exec­ut­ive order ending Iowa’s policy of disen­fran­chise­ment for those with felony convic­tions. Previously, those convicted of a felony had their voting rights disallowed for life. 

The order restores voting rights to most Iowans who have successfully completed their term of incar­cer­a­tion, proba­tion, parole or special sentence. The exception is people convicted on a homicide charge, who are not eligible for automatic restoration and must submit an application to the governor to have their rights restored.

According to the order, a failure to make restitution payments or pay other fees and fines will not stand in the way of voting rights restoration as it has in Florida.

“That was super important because otherwise it was meaningless for a lot of people because they’re going to take a lifetime to pay restitution,” Fowler said. “Your right to vote is not and should not be contingent on your ability to cough up a lot of money.”

Despite the entry of the executive order – a win for voting rights advocates – bridging the education gap is top of mind.

“There is still a lot of education to do,” Fowler said. “Any complexity is a disincentive to vote. The last thing a felon wants to do or an ex-felon … is get in trouble with the law because they voted wrongly.”

Help support this work

Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you. 

Peter Winslow is a Chicago-based freelance journalist. He recently graduated from Northwestern University’s...