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By Lyle Muller January 26, 2022

Numbers back Joni Ernst claim of record Iowa voter turnout

If Your Time is short

  • The numbers are straightforward, supporting Ernst's claim.

  • A few factors, including a 2020 push to increase absentee voting during COVID-19, have contributed to the increase in voter turnout. ​

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, spent time this past week defending Republican-led efforts to beat back Democrat-led proposals for how elections are handled in the United States. Speaking on ABC News’ "This Week" Sunday morning news program, Ernst told co-anchor Martha Raddatz:

"I would also say, since we have put a number of the voting laws into place over the last several years — voter ID is one of those — we've actually seen voter participation increase, even in off-election years."

She was talking about Iowa when making the comment. And, indeed, Iowa’s 2020 election attracted record-high turnout of 1.7 million voters, with a little more than 1 million voting by absentee ballot. In 2018, when state offices were on the non-presidential year ballot in Iowa, 1.3 million people voted, 547,200 by absentee ballot, state election records show.

Iowa turnout hit a record for off-year voting in 2021, when 425,000 Iowans cast ballots for school board and local elections, the Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate’s office reported. Voter turnout in the off-year 2019 election reached 359,000. The 2021 total amounted to a little fewer than 20% of eligible voters — not great for elections Pate says are important because of their local impact, but an improvement from when city and school elections were held separately, Kevin Hall, Pate’s spokesperson, wrote in an email to PolitiFact Iowa. Before a change in Iowa law, effected in 2019, Iowa school board elections were held in September during odd-numbered years.

Some context is needed for the 2020 election turnout, because Iowans had more options for casting votes than in previous years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, election officials sent absentee ballot request forms to every active registered voter in Iowa that year for what Pate said were safety concerns during the pandemic. County election officials used drop-box guidelines to ensure that absentee votes were cast. Rules for drop-offs varied county to county before the 2021 law enacted uniform rules.

Presidential election years traditionally draw more voters, but Iowa’s 2020 efforts to get more to vote absentee affected that turnout, state election officials said. 

"I believe Secretary Pate’s mailing of absentee ballot request forms to every active registered voter ahead of the June 2020 primary election unquestionably helped propel that to record turnout due to the uncertainty of COVID and many Iowans choosing to vote absentee," Hall wrote to PolitiFact Iowa.

The ABC News appearance wasn’t the first time Ernst, who ran Montgomery County’s elections as auditor from 2005 to 2011, had made her point about Iowa’s election laws not negatively affecting turnout. She wrote in her Jan. 14, 2022, newsletter: "In 2017, when the Iowa legislature modernized our state’s election laws — which included requiring voter ID — many Democrats warned the law was ‘dangerous,’ an ‘unnecessary hurdle,’ and a ‘significant barrier’ for anyone who is not a white male. They could not have been further from the truth. 

Hall said Iowa does not have statewide data on people turned away for failing to have an identification card. The state gives registered voters who don't have an Iowa driver’s license or other picture identification free Voter ID PIN cards and allows another person to attest to the voter’s identity, he said. The law began with a soft rollout in 2018, when voters who didn’t have a photo ID signed an oath attesting to their identity, before it was implemented fully in 2019.  

Iowans could vote as far out as 29 days before Election Day in 2020, which was fewer than the 40 days allowed in elections up to 2017, the year to which Ernst refers in her newsletter. The national average for early voting in person is 23 days, up one day from what it was nationally in 2021.

Featured Fact-check

The time to cast an absentee ballot in Iowa was shortened by the 2021 election law to 20 days and those ballots now must arrive at the county auditor’s office by 8 p.m. on Election Day. Before the new law, ballots could be counted if postmarked on or before Election Day and arriving at county auditors’ offices by noon the following Monday. County auditors in Iowa reported receiving more than 6,000 Iowa absentee ballots after Election Day in 2020 that counted then but would not under the 2021 law.

Other changes were made, too, in 2021. Voters wanting absentee ballots need to request them and no longer can rely on county auditors sending one unsolicited. On Election Day, Iowa’s polls close at 8 p.m. instead of 9 p.m., as had been the case.  

We reported previously that Republican and Democratic party leaders said Iowa’s election laws before and after the 2020 election promoted election integrity and were sound. But Republicans lawmakers said when approving the GOP-backed 2021 law that Iowans wanted changes to ensure that elections were secure. Democrats said elections were secure and the new law would drive some voters from the polls.


The American Civil Liberties Union in Iowa disputes Republican claims that voter ID laws like Iowa’s are fair. Having an ID requires drivers’ licenses or some other form of registration with a photo, having another person in the voting district attest to the person’s identity or filing Election Day registration documents. About 11% of Iowa’s adults didn’t have a drivers’ license, according to a 2014 congressional report, and those wanting a picture ID for voting have to endure bureaucracy, take off work during business hours, get child care and someone to drive them to get the ID, the ACLU says.

Registered voters in Iowa without a driver's license or non-operator ID are automatically mailed a voter ID card from the Secretary of State's office, and people with IDs can request them for free. Photos are not required on the cards.

Our ruling

Ernst said voter turnout has gone up in Iowa since the state’s Republican-led Legislature enacted tighter voting laws. The numbers confirm the claim. 

Voting in 2018 was done in Iowa with less time than in previous years for absentee ballots and a required picture ID because of a 2017 state law. The same was true in 2019. The 2021 off-year turnout was a record after more changes that reduced the time for casting absentee ballots from 29 days to 20 days. Turnout reached records for off-year elections, thanks in large part to combining school and local elections, elections officials say.

Turnout reached an all-time record with the 2020 presidential election, too, although special efforts to get voters to cast absentee ballots during the pandemic in 2020 figure into that year’s turnout. We rate this claim True.

EDITOR'S NOTE: We updated this story Jan. 27 to clarify information about Iowa's voter ID requirements. 

Our Sources

ABC News "This Week" transcript, Jan. 23, 2022

Paul Pate media release, Jul 17, 2020

Email exchanges with Paul Pate’s Secretary of State office, Jan. 25 and 26, 2022

Email exchanges with Joni Ernst’s U.S. Senate office, Jan. 25, 2022

KCCI News, "Iowa reports record turnout for 2021 election," Nov. 3, 2021

PolitiFact Iowa, "Iowa’s newest election laws, explained," by Lauren White, June 21, 2021

Iowa Senate, SF413, Mar. 8 

Iowa Secretary of State, "2020 General Election Voter Turnout Report," Nov. 3, 2020

Iowa Secretary of State, Absentee Ballot Statistics- By County, Nov. 10, 2020

Press release, Iowa Secretary of State, Jan. 10, 2019

Election Laws of Iowa, 2017, pages 244-245; 2018, page 393; 2019, page 400

American Civil Liberties Union – Iowa, "Voter ID in Iowa Fact Sheet"

U.S. Government Accountability Office, report, "Elections: Issues Related to State Voter Identification Laws," September 2014

Section 39A, Iowa Code

The Daily Iowan, Bill to change Iowa’s election laws passed in House, heads to governor’s desk, Feb. 24, 2021

Des Moines Register, "Auditors may use ballot drop boxes at county buildings only, secretary of state says," by Stephen Gruber-Miller, Sept. 3, 2020

National Council of State Legislatures, State Laws Governing Early Voting, Jan. 17, 2022 update

Des Moines Register, Iowa Legislature sends bill shortening early and Election Day voting to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk, Feb. 24, 2021

Project Vote Smart, Joni Ernst’s biography

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Numbers back Joni Ernst claim of record Iowa voter turnout

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