Iowa lawmakers grant emergency powers to cope with crush of mail-in ballots

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate talks Oct. 30, 2018, with a government class at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids. (
Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate talks Oct. 30, 2018, with a government class at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Lawmakers approved emergency authority Friday allowing election officials to get a leg up in coping with an expected crush of absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 election.

Expecting many more voters than usual to cast ballots absentee rather than go in-person to the polls during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Legislative Council granted Republican Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate the authority to establish a procedure for election officials around the state to begin preparing absentee ballots for counting early.

Members of the Legislative Council — a Statehouse steering committee when the Iowa Legislature is not in session — voted 24-0 to provide the extraordinary powers to Pate in his capacity as the state election commissioner. He’ll enact rules for speeding up the time-consuming process of opening mailed envelopes and separating the sealed ballots inside for processing on Nov. 2 — the day before Election Day.

Under the emergency directive, county auditors will be able to mail absentee ballots to residents of health and long-term care facilities who request them; allow all identification cards that have expired in 2020 to be considered current and valid for in-person absentee balloting and at Election Day polling places; and to allow absentee ballots to be opened — but not counted — during the weekend before the Nov. 3 election.

“The law already allows county auditors to begin tabulating absentee ballots on Monday, Nov. 2,” said Molly Widen, Pate’s legal counsel. “Therefore if a county auditor takes advantage of the time on Saturday, Oct. 31, they would likely be able to begin tabulating earlier on Monday before the election.”

Widen also said that a “curbside voting” procedure has been established where eligible Iowans who wish to vote in person can do so even if they find themselves in a COVID-19 quarantine situation on Nov. 3.

Signs will be posted at each of Iowa’s polling places designating an area for curbside voting with a telephone number the voter can call. A precinct official in protective gear will then come to serve the voter who remains in his or her car.


Pate has outlined security procedures in which Absentee & Special Voters Precinct Boards may meet Oct. 31 to open mailed-in affidavits received by county auditors and remove the secrecy envelope containing the ballot “but under no circumstances shall a secrecy ballot be opened before the board convenes to begin the tabulation of ballots” on Nov. 2, according to Pate’s request.

Each political party may appoint up to five representatives to observe the Oct. 31 process and, if a ballot is not enclosed in a secrecy ballot or is folded in such a way that any of the votes cast on the ballot are visible, a procedure is spelled out for placing the ballot in a sealed envelope.

The request also would allow the Secretary of State to authorize the emergency relocation of a polling place due to the pandemic in compliance with Gov. Kim Reynolds’ public health disaster emergency proclamation.

As of midday Friday, Pate said more than 583,000 Iowans had requested absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 election — a number that represents more than a third of the total votes cast in the 2016 election. Absentee balloting has grown significantly since 1988, when about 7 percent of Iowans voted absentee, according to the Secretary of State’s website.

Absentee ballot request forms were sent to active registered Iowa voters this month and county auditors are slated to begin mailing ballots to those who requested them Oct. 5.

“I just want to give a shout out to Iowans for the amazing participation we’ve had in this election so far,” said Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, who serves on the council.

She praised county auditors for adapting to the “very difficult” challenges in conducting a fair election during a pandemic that includes “safe opportunities” to vote by mail.

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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