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Iowa Republicans push bill to restrict public student voting rights

"What they're attempting to do is disgraceful."

IOWA CITY, IOWA- FEBRUARY 01:  Forward Tyler Cook #25 of the Iowa Hawkeyes celebrates with fans after the upset over the Michigan Wolverines on February 1, 2019 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, in Iowa City, Iowa.  (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images)
IOWA CITY, IOWA- FEBRUARY 01: Forward Tyler Cook #25 of the Iowa Hawkeyes celebrates with fans after the upset over the Michigan Wolverines on February 1, 2019 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images)

Iowa is regularly at the center of our national political conversation, thanks to the biennial Iowa caucuses, which mark the beginning of both the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries. Now, with Senate File 575, Iowa is once again making headlines, this time for its attempts at voter suppression.

Under SF 575, which passed out of a committee earlier this month, students at Iowa’s public universities — University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and the University of Northern Iowa — would be unable to vote early on campus. This is because of a provision introduced in the bill that would prevent satellite voting locations from being set up in a “state-owned building.” This would not impact students attending private universities in Iowa.

Additionally, this bill would require the approximately 70,000 students at Iowa’s public universities to fill out a form when they graduate indicating if they plan to stay in Iowa, or move out of state. If they indicate that they plan on moving, the state will automatically purge them from the voting rolls. If their plans change, and they remain in Iowa, they would have to start the voter registration process from scratch.

“As we’re encouraging kids to stay in Iowa, we should be making it [as] easy as possible to be Iowans, to participate in our elections, not making any barriers for them,” Jamie Fitzgerald, a Polk County Auditor, told KCCI Des Moines “It’s perplexing.”

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Of course, the bill makes perfect sense when you recognize that it has been moving through the Iowa Senate firmly on party lines. Voters between the ages of 18 and 29 turned out in record numbers for the 2018 midterm elections, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), and voted for Democrats by a margin of 35 points.

According to the Des Moines Register, in 2016, 56 percent of the people who voted early at a University of Iowa satellite site were Democrats, and only 13 percent were Republicans. The percentage of Democrats at those sites increased in 2018.

But SF 575 does more than just target college students. It will make it harder for all Iowans to vote, by closing the polls an hour earlier on Election Day, requiring a county auditor to verify signatures, prohibiting a county auditor from using the voter registration system to verify absentee ballot requests, and changing the deadlines to submit early ballots. And, it’s important to note that the ban on using state-owned buildings as satellite voting sites would also impact the Iowa Veterans home.

Because the Iowa state government is controlled by Republicans, the bill has a good chance of passing. But the editorial board of the Des Moines Register has come out strongly against the bill.

“This state does not have a problem with voter fraud. It is very close to nonexistent. Yet Republicans cite fraud to justify bills like this one. What they’re attempting to do is disgraceful,” the editorial board wrote.

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“The bill should be squashed by lawmakers. If it passes, Gov. Kim Reynolds should veto it. And in the next election, Iowans should work hard to navigate the increasingly convoluted election laws in this state to kick out of office [Sen. Roby Smith (R)] and others who seek to prevent Iowans from having their say.”