Absentee ballot requests are outpacing 2016 in many Iowa counties. Here's how election offices say they've prepared.
The number of Iowans requesting a ballot this year is nearing the total number who voted early in 2016 — and there's still more than a month left until the election.
Beginning Monday, county auditors will mail absentee ballots to more than 632,000 Iowa voters. That number is closing in on the 653,000 who voted early — by mail and in person — in the 2016 election. The pace of requests this year is far ahead of where the state was four years ago.
“We’ve never had this many this early in the process,” said Dallas County Auditor Julia Helm. The 20,870 requests her office has received for absentee ballots this year as of Oct. 2 exceeds the total number of early votes cast in the county four years ago.
The 29-day early voting period marks the kickoff of a hotly contested election under unusual circumstances. Polling shows a neck and neck race in Iowa between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, while the coronavirus pandemic has led many Iowans to choose to vote absentee rather than risking a crowded polling place on Election Day.
On the ballot this year, Iowans will have the chance to vote for candidates for president, U.S. Senate, U.S. House, the Iowa Legislature and county offices such as sheriff and auditor. On the back of the ballot, Iowans will vote on whether to retain Iowa judges and Supreme Court justices in office. They also will vote on whether Iowa should hold a constitutional convention to propose amendments to the state's Constitution — a measure that is required by law to be placed on the ballot every decade.
County auditors and Secretary of State Paul Pate say Iowa is well-equipped to handle the number of mail-in ballots that have been requested this year and is prepared to offer safe in-person voting options for Iowans, both early and on Nov. 3.
Ballot requests expected to set a record
Iowans' mailboxes have been bombarded by absentee ballot request forms this fall as the Secretary of State's Office, county election officials, political parties and outside groups try to encourage voters to cast their ballot by mail in light of the pandemic. And Iowans are responding.
In Scott County, Auditor Roxanna Moritz's office had already received more than 36,000 requests for absentee ballots as of Sept. 30. That’s a lot for late September. Ultimately, she said, she expects about 60,000 people in Scott County to vote early, either through the mail or in person at the auditor’s office or a satellite voting site.
“Obviously, the more that we can get off our plate earlier the better we are,” she said. “But there are individuals that want to use different methods, and we want to encourage people no matter what that method is that they participate in the process.”
Moritz said the most important thing for voters is to have a plan for how they will vote and to make sure they are familiar with the process. If Iowans plan to vote by mail, election officials say they should carefully read the instructions so they don't make mistakes, such as forgetting to sign the outer envelope, which could cause their ballot to be invalidated.
Iowa law contains mechanisms for canceling absentee ballots if Iowans lose them or make a mistake. If that happens, Moritz said, voters can contact their county auditor, who can get them a new ballot.
"If you requested an absentee ballot, know what that process is. If you lost it, you can get another one. We can invalidate it and get you another one," she said.
So far, more Democrats are taking advantage of early voting than Republicans. As of Oct. 2, more than 335,000 Democrats statewide had requested an absentee ballot compared to more than 186,000 Republicans and 108,000 no-party voters, data from the Iowa Secretary of State's Office shows. The ballot requests mirror the partisan split found in a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll from mid-September, in which roughly two in three Democratic likely voters said they plan to vote early or absentee while two in three Republican likely voters plan to vote in person on Election Day.
Iowans have until Oct. 24 to request an absentee ballot. To be counted, an absentee ballot must be received by the county auditor by the time polls close on Election Day or be postmarked by the day before the election and received by the auditor by noon on the Monday following the election. Election night results are not official until a canvass is conducted the week after the election.
Besides mail-in voting, Iowans have other options for casting their ballots early this year. They can vote in person at their county auditor’s office. And in many counties, auditors are setting up additional satellite early voting locations. Many auditors also have a drop box set up at their office where voters can return their ballots.
Working to prevent voter confusion
Moritz said she’s paying attention to what she calls the “four Cs” this year. They stand for COVID, cybersecurity, civil unrest and — the latest — confusion.
“People are extremely confused over the national narrative, so we are fielding hundreds of calls a day literally about people not understanding the process,” Moritz said.
She said she likes that people are paying attention and are engaged, but it's hard for her office to combat all the misconceptions.
In Buena Vista County, Auditor Sue Lloyd said her office, like others in Iowa, is getting calls from voters who have received multiple ballot request forms in the mail. In some cases, residents are sending multiple requests to her office to ensure they get a ballot. Responding to those requests is eating into her staff’s time. Each voter receives only one ballot regardless of how many requests are sent in.
"I think people are just anxious to get their ballot voted and get it back in to us," she said.
To ease some of that confusion, some counties, including Polk, are considering taking the extra step of mailing voters a confirmation once their mail-in ballot has been received.
"In case they’re worried about say the Postal Service, or if they’re worried about not being counted, that’s a little more contact with them to let them know this is going to be counted," said Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald.
A number of lawsuits could also complicate things for voters, particularly in Linn, Johnson and Woodbury counties. Trump's campaign and several Republican groups sued auditors in those counties for sending out ballot request forms with voters' names, addresses and ID numbers already filled in, violating a directive from Pate, the secretary of state, judges have ruled. The judges invalidated tens of thousands of requests in the counties as a result. Now the auditors are encouraging those voters to send in another request for a ballot.
In Linn County, where about 50,000 ballot requests were invalidated, Auditor Joel Miller tweeted on Sept. 22 that more than 18,000 voters whose requests were invalidated had not yet made a second request.
Pate, a Republican, said he wishes auditors in the three counties had heeded the directive issued by his office that told counties to distribute only blank ballot request forms.
"I can’t sugarcoat it. I’m very disappointed and frustrated with the three county auditors who chose to cause this confusion. ... But having said all that, we’re going to work with those auditors and we’re going to work with the voters to make sure that confusion is kept to a minimum and that everybody is successful who wants to vote absentee," Pate said.
Will there be a delay in reporting results?
The influx of voting by mail around the country this year is expected to lead to delays in counting votes in many states, meaning the winner of the presidential election may not be known on Nov. 3. But several Iowa county auditors said they’re confident they will be able to process the absentee ballots and report the results on election night as they normally do.
In late September, a panel of Iowa lawmakers granted a request from Pate to allow counties to begin the process of opening the outer absentee ballot envelopes on the Saturday before Election Day, rather than the traditional day before. The ballots themselves must remain in their secrecy envelopes and still cannot be counted before Nov. 2, the day before Election Day.
Asked if he has any concerns about absentee results not being reported on election night, Pate said, "No, I really don't."
At the same time, he said, the public shouldn't expect to see results immediately when the polls close at 9 p.m. Counties still need to count and double-check their results, and the Secretary of State's Office does the same.
"I just tell people that patience is going to be important. We’re looking for accuracy here," Pate said. But he doesn't expect it to take several days or a week to learn the results, as some people fear.
County auditors are not sounding the alarm about a dire lack of poll workers this fall, but several say they could use a few more hands as they prepare to staff polling places on Election Day.
Pate said finding enough poll workers was one of the biggest challenges for the election, since Iowa's poll workers tend to be older and at a higher risk for the coronavirus. But through an online advertising campaign and other outreach, Pate said he's identified more than 10,000 people who are interested in being poll workers. He has shared those names with county auditors so they can reach out and get new ones trained.
Lloyd, in Buena Vista County, said she’s still looking for a few more interpreters to staff the polls. The county's population is 26.4% Hispanic or Latino, and 33.3% of families speak a language other than English at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Many county auditors typically hire extra staff during the lead-up to the election to help with their increased workload. In some cases, they began doing so earlier than normal this year.
Helm, the Dallas County auditor, hired six part-time employees to help with the election. That’s the number she normally hires, but this year she brought them on three weeks earlier than normal.
“We couldn’t have waited. We would have been behind the eight-ball,” she said.
Story County Auditor Lucy Martin said her office is handling the number of ballot requests so far. She hired her nine temporary staffers for the election earlier than she has in past years.
“Once ballots go live on Oct. 5, we'll see if the demand keeps up because then we're not just processing requests. We're also mailing out every day,” Martin said. “But I am confident we have enough between my staff and my temporary staff.”
Though the workload is under control right now, Martin said she’ll likely be doing overtime after Oct. 5, when auditor offices are required to process absentee ballot requests within 24 hours.
Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert said he has hired 33 additional people to help with staffing needs. If social distancing restrictions weren't an issue, he could add even more.
“We definitely could use more help, but due to COVID and keeping people 6 feet away for everyone’s safety, we are running out of space,” he said.
Des Moines Register reporters Ian Richardson and George Shillcock, Iowa City Press-Citizen reporter Zachary Oren Smith, Ames Tribune reporter Danielle Gehr and Burlington Hawk Eye reporter Laigha Anderson contributed to this story.
Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.
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