CEDAR RAPIDS — Iowa’s system of absentee voting is too loose and so subject to fraud, said Joel Miller, Linn County auditor and commissioner of elections, and he said a new criminal case may prove his point.
Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden has filed a felony charge of election misconduct in the first degree against Clarence Ellis of Cedar Rapids, who is accused of voting via absentee ballot for his son and daughter or granddaughter in the November 2012 presidential election.
In his formal criminal complaint filed in Linn County District Court, Vander Sanden stated that Ellis, 63, “admitted during questioning” that he filled out absentee ballots for his two relatives and sent the ballots to the Linn County Elections Office.
Both ballots had forged signatures, the criminal complaint states.
Vander Sanden said on Thursday that he has prosecuted eight cases of election misconduct since 2012, with the typical case involving an ex-felon who had voted without first having the right to vote restored by the governor.
“However, in the Ellis complaint, the allegation is that he filled out absentee ballots for other family members and forged their signatures when he submitted them,” Vander Sanden said.
Auditor Miller on Thursday said that Ellis, a registered Democrat with an address of 815 Wellington St. SE, voted via absentee ballot for himself in the election, which would mean he voted three times if the criminal allegation against him proves true.
Miller said all county auditors in Iowa use the same computer voter registration system, and he said the Bremer County election office flagged the Ellis case after Ellis’s daughter or granddaughter voted in Bremer County at the same time that an absentee ballot for her had been cast in Linn County.
The Iowa Secretary of State learned of the matter, and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation then conducted an investigation.
Miller said county auditors in Iowa realize that the biggest potential for voter fraud occurs when absentee ballots arrive at an address where there typically are a few or more voters. On average, most Linn County households have two or three eligible voters and a few have eight or more, he said.
“We don’t know who picked up the ballots, we don’t know who voted the ballots and we don’t know who signed the affidavits on the ballot return envelope,” Miller said.
This is no small matter, he said. In 2012 in Linn County, 32,482 voters or 27.4 percent of the total cast absentee ballots that were mailed to their homes, according to Linn County voting data.
“Our elections are based on trust — trust that the voters requesting the ballots at home are the voters who are voting the ballots at home,” Miller said.
Miller did his own study earlier this summer in which he visited 20 addresses with the most registered voters in the county to see who still lived there. One household had 15 voters and a few others as many as 12. He said the county’s information was “good, but not perfect.”
Earlier this week, Miller mailed out voter registration cards to every registered voter in the county to update his voter records.
“That should decrease the odds that someone is able to request an absentee ballot for a former roommate, housemate or relative who has moved out,” he said.
Miller said he suspected that incidents of one member of a household voting for others in the household — perhaps spouses voting for each other — is more common than might be thought.
He said one remedy is to make it easier for voters to vote early in person at county election offices and at mobile election sites throughout a county.
“This is Iowa. We expect our elections to be clean. No cheating should be tolerated,” Miller said.
Ellis was issued a summons to appear in court. Election misconduct in the first degree is a Class D felony punishable by up to five years in prison.