A panel of state lawmakers last week unanimously approved allowing the Iowa secretary of state to mail absentee ballot request forms to all active registered voters in Iowa before the Nov. 3 election.

The decision was a turnaround from July 1, when the 24-member Legislative Council voted down a Democratic lawmaker’s proposal to allow the mass mailing of absentee ballot request forms.

Since then, Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, requested permission to mail out the ballot request forms, as he did before the June primary. That mailing irked some Republican lawmakers, who passed legislation last month to restrict his emergency powers. The law now requires Pate to seek approval from the Legislative Council before making emergency changes to election rules.

“I want Iowa voters and poll workers to be safe during this pandemic while we conduct a clean, fair and secure election. After consulting with all 99 county auditors, I believe the best way to accomplish that goal is by mailing an absentee ballot request form to every active registered voter in the state,” Pate said in a statement.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, spoke in favor of the proposal.  “As I said on our last call, we want as many people as possible to vote. We want this election to be as accessible as possible, and we also need it to be predictable for campaigns and we need it to be uniform across the state.”

When GOP lawmakers turned down the similar proposal just over two weeks ago, they said it wasn’t needed. But on Friday, they said Pate had not yet requested the change. In the meantime, a statewide poll of Iowa registered voters age 50 and older expressed strong support for election officials to mail ballot request forms to all voters.

That didn’t end the controversy over absentee voting, however. Democrats pushed during Friday’s meeting to allow county auditors to send out absentee ballot request forms that included some voter identification information. Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, proposed to allow auditors to send out voters’ four-digit personal identification numbers (PIN) with the absentee ballot request form.

“Folks that will need it to vote are the elderly, the disabled or those with economic barriers that prevent them from getting a driver’s license number,” Steckman said.

Some county auditors have said they intended to send out forms with PIN numbers already included, to aid voters who do not have a driver’s license or state identification number. Some auditors had already begun printing forms with that information included, lawmakers said.

Republican lawmakers opposed the change, citing election security. “This is the part that makes sure the absentee ballot process is secure,” Whitver said. He said a ballot request form could be mailed to an out-of-date address, giving someone else access to the confidential PIN number.  Voters who need their PIN can get one by calling their county auditor, he said.

House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, said it was a “scare tactic and misleading to the public” to suggest that mailing a PIN to voters on an absentee ballot request would make the election less secure. “It’s helping voters’ access to the ballot box. I see absolutely zero credible reason to not allow the auditors to mail these PINs.”

Republicans approved legislation this year that forbids county auditors from correcting errors or filling in missing information such as PIN numbers from absentee ballot request forms. The auditor has to contact voters directly by phone or email before a request form can be corrected.

The GOP members on the council also turned down a proposal to extend the time period to vote by mail to 40 days before the election. Pate extended the period for voting by mail to before the June primary. Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, who made the proposal, said the extra time was needed to allow election officials time to send out ballots and process completed ones that are returned.

Whitver said he believed Friday’s action would give everyone “plenty of notice.”

A representative of the secretary of state’s office said they did not yet have a timeline set for mailing out the absentee ballot request forms.