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Sample ballot confusion prompts Linn County party leaders to call on auditor's office to do more

Cedar Rapids residents vote early at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids on Oct. 14, 2014.  (The Gazette file photo)
Cedar Rapids residents vote early at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids on Oct. 14, 2014. (The Gazette file photo)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Leaders of Linn County’s three major political parties are voicing their concerns over the county auditor’s office’s recently mailed sample ballots — which have confused hundreds of residents.

In a news release Monday, the three party leaders — Linn County Democrats Chair Bret Nilles, Linn County GOP Chair Justin Wasson and Linn County Libertarian Party Chair Matthew Cannon — noted “extreme concern” over Linn County Auditor Joel Miller’s response to the sample ballots.

The ballots were mailed last month to educate voters on the Nov. 6 election, but nearly 800 residents have mistaken them for actual ballots, filling out the sample ballots and returning them to the county office.

“The primary concern is that the county auditor’s office is not taking sufficient action to notify the public of this mistake, and (the major party leaders) call upon him to bring this issue to all residents of Linn County,” the release states.

Miller on Monday defended the mailers, noting the included sample ballots have been widely successful and the roughly 800 people who returned the sample ballots is a fraction of the 90,500 households to receive them.

“I think we did way, way more good than we did harm with this,” he said.

As of Monday morning, the county had issued 28,351 absentee ballots and received 8,835 completed ballots. Miller said more than 6,000 of those requests came from the mailer.

The auditor’s office last month mailed sample ballots to residents with the hopes of educating voters and boosting absentee ballot requests ahead of the Nov. 6 election. Each mailer also included an absentee ballot request form, a return envelope and information explaining the sample ballots.

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But officials have said the word “sample,” which was printed in large capital letters across each sample ballot, became faded during scanning and printing, making it difficult for some recipients to see.

As of Friday, 781 people had returned completed sample ballots. The county has mailed information back to a majority of those individuals. However, 67 of those sample ballots did not include a return address, making those individuals unreachable.

The county’s political party chairs said Miller needs to do more to reach voters who filled out the sample ballots in error.

“There is the very real issue of people not having their vote counted unless a more aggressive plan to notify voters is taken. If any of these voters are not made aware of this mistake, they are losing their right to participate in the election with an official ballot,” the release states.

All completed sample ballots have been properly destroyed, officials with the auditor’s office have said.

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said his biggest concern was that the ballots potentially disenfranchise voters, specifically those who did not provide return addresses.

“The Linn County Auditor’s Office needs to do everything possible to inform the public of the issue regarding sample ballots and provide voters with the information they need to ensure their vote is counted at the Nov. 6 election,” Pate said in an email.

Miller, who said he is not aware of any residents calling his office claiming to have returned a sample ballot, argued that concern surrounding the sample ballots is a political cause — namely by Nilles and county Supervisor Ben Rogers, his challenger in the upcoming election.

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“I have no doubt its politically motivated,” he said. “I’m concerned about those people, too, but there’s only so much I can do, and I think we’ve done and we’re doing what we need to do here.”

Democrat Rogers is facing Miller in the Nov. 6 election for the county’s new District 2 seat. Former Democrat Miller is running as an independent, no party candidate.

Rogers on Monday expressed frustration with political accusations by Miller, who has butted heads with the Board of Supervisors in the past.

“If the board were to have done this, knowing Joel, he’d be asking the exact same questions I’m asking,” Rogers said. “There is nothing about that that is political. ... It’s ironic that myself and others are the ones most concerned that people are notified that they can still vote and that same level of urgency is not coming from the commissioner of elections.”

Rogers said he believes the sample ballot fiasco was a simple mistake, but his worry is that people who have mailed in a sample ballot could think they’ve voted already, when in fact they have not.

“I am just shocked,” he said. “My main concern is a lack of response and lack of seriousness.”

Miller said he does not plan on sending all county residents a second letter to address the confusion of several hundred, as doing so would just create more confusion during an election that includes new voter ID rules and the elimination of straight-party voting, he said.

“If they didn’t read the instructions that came with the first sample ballot, why are they going to read what I send them the second time?” Miller said.

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Republican Linn County Supervisor John Harris said Monday that the board has asked for Miller or a representative from his office to debrief supervisors at their Wednesday meeting about the sample ballots and the office’s response.

Linn County residents with questions regarding the election can contact the Linn County Auditor’s Office at 319-892-5300.

l Comments: (319) 398-8309; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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