Sen. Roby Smith of Davenport wanted to add, among other provisions, to legislation initially intended to improve absentee voting, language barring public universities from serving as early voting locations.
Senate Republicans approved wide-ranging elections legislation Wednesday evening, unsettling county auditors and Iowa Democrats alike.
Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, led the charge on House File 692 in the GOP-controlled Senate, adding an amendment to the bill at the beginning of debate that substantially changed its original intent.
The package of election changes includes closing polls during the general election at 8 p.m. instead of 9 p.m.; allowing auditors to use signature verification to confirm authenticity of absentee ballots; and prohibits the mailing of sample ballots, among many other contentious provisions.
"This amendment brings in checks and balances to our county commissioners of elections while expanding their authority over elections," said Smith, on the Senate floor.
The bill passed strictly along party lines, 31-18. Prior to the vote, the Des Moines Register reported, some Democrats walked out of the Senate chamber in protest.
Sen. Tom Greene, R-Burlington, voted in favor of the legislation, while Sen. Rich Taylor, D-Mount Pleasant, dissented.
Senate Minority Leader Janet Peterson of Des Moines attempted to strike the amendment from consideration, arguing it "undermines the work of the Iowa House by going into multiple sections of the Iowa Code that aren't in the original bill."
On March 14, HF 692, without Smith's amendment, unanimously passed the House 96-0.
The original intent of the bill was to better serve Iowans who vote absentee by affixing a ballot-tracking bar code to all ballots. Much like how the bar codes on packages allow you to track your mail as it moves from place to place, the intelligent bar code would allow election officials to track absentee ballots so they know precisely when it was mailed and when it arrived.
Under the proposal, county auditors would purchase the bar codes provided by the United States Postal Service.
The Iowa State Association of County Auditors, of which Lee County Auditor Denise Fraise is president, registered against the bill.
"I think we do need some type of consistency across the state as far as tracking absentee ballots," said Fraise, speaking as the Lee County auditor.
The bill now goes back to the House for consideration, where it likely will undergo changes from the Senate version.
The legislation was precipitated by a 2018 Iowa House race decided by a mere nine votes. During the recount, election officials in House District 55 argued the more than a dozen ballots received after Election Day should be counted because they were mailed on time. Legislators in the House made the ultimate decision on the ballots, however, and ruled against counting them due to a lack of clarity in state law.
"This is a great bill which uses modern technology to solidify and expand enfranchisement of voters," said Rep. Jon Jacobson, R-Council Bluffs, during debate March 14 on the legislation with "tremendous bipartisan support."
Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines, said HF 692 — as originally written — "makes sure we will be counting ballots uniformly across the state of Iowa."
"It's going to make sure that every person that completes an absentee ballot, does everything right and sends it in on time, will have that ballot counted," said Hunter.