Even amidst a global pandemic, voters turned out in record breaking numbers for the 2020 Presidential Election. Iowa had the highest voter turnout in state history with 1,700,130 voters casting ballots. 1,001,573 of those ballots were absentee. Iowa had an incredibly successful 2020 election where over 75% of Iowans voted. Yet, the legislature and Governor Kim Reynolds were extremely quick to pass legislation drastically reducing access to the ballot, especially for the disability community.
A 2021 Rutgers study found that voting difficulties for the disability community decreased in the 2020 election. However, one in nine voters from the disability community still encounter barriers while voting. This is almost double the rate of problems for voters without disabilities. These issues were most common for people with vision, intellectual, or developmental disabilities. Part of the decrease in barriers to the vote can be attributed to the expansion and ease of access to absentee ballots. It is important to note that Iowa’s absentee ballots are currently inaccessible for blind people, which violates their right to an independent and private ballot.
74% of voters in the disability community voted early at a polling place or by mail ballot. This success for the disability community should be used as a template for further progress to increase voter participation and to #CriptheVote. The disability community continues to vote 7% less than those without disabilities. Iowa should be actively engaging the disability community to increase accessibility of the vote to address the disability gap in voter turnout. Instead, Iowa is suppressing the disability vote.
Senate File 413 reduces the early voting period from 29 to 20 days, closes polling places one hour earlier, and limits the days to accept absentee ballots. Absentee ballots must now be received by county auditors by 8 pm on Election Day to be counted. Absentee ballots previously only had to be in the mail before Election Day and received by the following Monday. Under the law, only the voter, immediate family members, members in the same household, or caregivers can return absentee ballots to an auditor’s office or by mail. This is directly harmful to the disability community because they used to be able to designate anyone to return their ballots. These new regulations are being justified as a way to curb voter fraud. However, these restrictions are completely unnecessary because there was no evidence of voter fraud in 2020 even during the highest voter participation in history.
Restrictive voting rules only serve to further disenfranchise Iowa’s voters when there are already issues within the election system. 22 legally cast ballots were never included in the race between Rita Hart and Mariannette Miller-Meeks in Iowa’s 2nd District. In this extremely tight race won by only 6 votes, every Iowan deserved to have their ballots counted. Two curbside ballots cast by the disability community were not counted in the initial canvass because the voting machine would not accept the ballots. Poll workers then placed these ballots in the voted pile even though the voting machine never cast the ballot. The Recount Board determined they could not count these votes because they were not included in the initial canvass. Human and mechanical errors similar to this persisted throughout the entire 2nd District. Absentee ballots were rejected for signature requirements that are not present in Iowa’s election laws. Other voters had absentee ballots sent to them in sealed envelopes and were rejected because they had to reseal the envelopes to return them. Iowa’s newest voting law will perpetuate these problems among voters and election staff that will ultimately disenfranchise more Iowa voters than these 22 people in the 2nd District. 22 people is already too many Iowans who are not having their voices heard when they did everything correctly to cast their ballot. Hart recently withdrew this petition as she claims “the toxic campaign of political disinformation to attack this constitutional review of the closest congressional contest in 100 years has effectively silenced the voices of Iowans.” These 22 legally cast ballots will not be counted. While they did everything right, these Iowans have been disenfranchised.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 grants the federal government a role in remedying disenfranchisement. As a result, President Biden issued the Executive Order on Promoting Access to Voting. This Executive Order aims to promote and defend the right to vote while expanding education about voter registration and election information for minority groups. The National Institute of Standards along with several other organizations will analyze barriers for the disability community to voter registration, voting technology, and polling locations. They will also review poll worker training with regards to knowledge of voting technology and interactions with the disability community.
Other proposed federal legislation, such as For the People Act of 2021, would expand access to the vote for the disability community. This act would create procedures for the disability community to receive accessible paper or electronic ballots to protect their right to a private and independent ballot. States would also have to expand the early voting period to 60 days. Absentee ballots would have to be available for every voter and prohibit witness signature requirements. The numerous other efforts to increase the ease of voting in this act appear drastically different from the restrictive voting legislation sweeping across the nation and in Iowa.
Democracy and its success rely on the active participation of every voter. Reducing the early voting period and increasing restrictions on absentee ballots and polling place hours directly harms a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Iowa’s new voting law suppresses the voices of minority groups, especially the disability community. Five months after the highest voter participation in state history, Iowa should be capitalizing on this progress to further equal access to the vote. Instead, Iowans are being punished for their active voting and prevented from contributing to democracy.