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Neighbors Growing Together | May 24, 2017

Branstad signs election-law changes Friday

By Rod Boshart, Gazette Des Moines Bureau | May 08, 2017

DES MOINES — Gov. Terry Branstad signed election-law changes Friday establishing new verification procedures for voters and shortening the voting period in Iowa that proponents say will improve election integrity but critics insist will suppress turnout and raise costs to taxpayers.

“The real work begins now,” said Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, also the state’s elections commissioner, after Branstad attached his name to House File 516, a bill the governor said would reform and modernize the administrative process of elections in Iowa.

“This bill will increase the integrity of our election systems by reforming our voter identification laws,” the governor said. “This bill will also make the administration of our elections more efficient and convenient for Iowans.”

The legislation reduces Iowa’s early-voting period for requesting and casting absentee ballots from 40 days to 29.

Also, prospective voters may be asked to have their signatures verified as part of the safeguards majority Republican legislators say are needed to prevent voter fraud.

About $700,000 was appropriated by the GOP-led Legislature to implement the new law, with some of the new money going to provide new voter identification cards to the estimated 85,000 eligible Iowa voters who do not have a driver’s license.

 

Pate said about 95 percent of Iowa voters will not be impacted because their Iowa driver’s license, U.S. passport or veterans ID card will meet the identification requirements at Iowa polling places. The 5 percent of prospective voters who do not have those will be mailed a new voter ID card before the June 2018 primary election, the first time the new system will be used.

Pate said his office plans a “soft rollout” public education program to ensure that everybody who doesn’t have that photo ID card will have one.

“There’s been a lot of misinformation and political hype. Now we have to cut through all of that,” he said.

Other provisions of House File 516 would eliminate the option for voters to check a single box for straight-party voting, allow teenagers who turn 18 by the general election to vote in the earlier primary, put money toward helping precincts buy digital poll books and establish postelection audits.

Also, the bill would provide for technology upgrades and additional poll worker training.

“I’m just really excited about a chance to go to the next level on the technology side,” Pate said. “Those e-poll books are going to be one of the greatest things. They’ll be talking about that for the next 10 years on how much better the system works, and information will be so much quicker and the integrity will be there.”

During the recently completed legislative session, critics argued the election bill would put up barriers to elderly, disabled, minority and other Iowa voters and would discourage participation in a fundamental American right.

They argued it would increase costs to the state and counties and create unintended consequences in a state with a track record of clean elections with high participation rates.

They also said it likely would trigger a legal challenge.

“It is outrageous that Iowa legislators have passed the Secretary of State’s omnibus voter suppression bill,” Rita Bettis, ACLU of Iowa legal director, said Friday. “It includes measures calculated to harm voting in Iowa, including not only voter ID, but also unreliable and burdensome signature verification, cuts to early voting and other provisions.

“Make no mistake: This is only the latest in a broad strategy to make it harder for qualified voters to vote and roll back decades of progress to expand participation in our elections by all eligible voters. Legislators have done so with the full knowledge that these laws will erect barriers to make it harder for people of color, senior citizens and people with disabilities, in particular, to vote,” she added. “This is nothing more than a cynical political ploy — a campaign talking point — that will harm Iowans’ ability to exercise the voting rights that they have under law.”

MEDICAL MALPRACTICE

Also Friday, a day that Branstad declared “a banner day” given the significant legislation he acted on, the governor signed legislation capping medical malpractice awards but would allow juries to make awards of more than $250,000 in cases of “substantial or permanent loss or impairment of bodily functions and substantial disfigurement.”

Originally, Senate File 465 would have capped non-economic damages — damages awarded for pain, suffering, physical impairment, inconvenience and mental anguish among others — at $250,000.

“This is something I’ve waited a long time to sign,” said Branstad, who expected the bill would make it easier for Iowa to attract and retain doctors by joining 35 other states that cap non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases.

MENTAL HEALTH

Branstad also signed Senate File 504, legislation designed to give counties more flexibility to equitably deal with regional mental health costs while holding the line on property taxes.

The bill would begin from the maximum property tax allowed to be collected across all counties at $114.6 million statewide. It will equalize mental health funding on a county basis within regions. It provides for a growth factor for each regional per-capita amount but maintains a $47.28 per-capita cap.

The legislation also requires regions to spend down fund balances but maintains the 25 percent limit on cash reserves.

The state organized counties into 13 regional authorities in 2013 and pooled their property tax revenues for mental health care. The reorganization was meant to fix some inequities due to a 1996 cap that prevented some counties from taxing residents at the same level as their partner counties.

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