CORONAVIRUS

Auditors take unprecedented precautions for June 2 primary

But mostly they want voters to cast ballots by mail

Mailers to voters from Linn County Auditor Joel Miller in advance of the June 2 primary election are folded, inserted an
Mailers to voters from Linn County Auditor Joel Miller in advance of the June 2 primary election are folded, inserted and machine sealed Thursday at Allegra Marketing Print Mail in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
/

CEDAR RAPIDS — It’s not just a matter of having enough ballots, setting up voting stations and fielding an army of poll workers as Iowa election officials prepare for the June 2 primary.

Faced with operating in-person voting stations during a coronavirus pandemic, county auditors are making unprecedented preparations. They’re shopping for hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment to safeguard poll workers. They’re planning Plexiglas barriers between voters and poll workers to keep everyone safe, and working to minimalize the points of contact that may occur at people go to vote.

Poll workers are requesting protective gear like masks, Linn County Auditor Joel Miller said, “and we are trying to obtain it, but we are not a priority in the supply chain.”

Black Hawk County Auditor Grant Veeder will have a designated door-opener at polling stations so only one person touches the handle as voters come and go.

In Clayton County, 14 precincts have been merged into one at a school, which Auditor Jennifer Garms said “will allow for social distancing (and) room for additional voting booths so we can rotate the booths and clean after each usage.”

Most of all, auditors encourage Iowans to take advantage of the extended window for mail-in absentee voting. They think Iowans agree.

“From talking to the public, the preference seems to be all-mail with little to no polling sites open,” said Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, who is mailing absentee ballot request forms to about 2 million registered voters, is encouraging voting by mail to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

“The safety of voters while casting their ballots is our top priority,” Pate said. “The June 2 primary election will go on as scheduled because it’s important for Iowans to make their voices heard by voting. The safest way to vote will be by mail.”

The top card on the primary ballot will be the five-way race to nominate a Democratic challenger to U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst. There also are Republican primaries in all four Iowa congressional districts. In addition, there are a number of primary races for state legislative seats and county offices.

Miller’s office will mail more than 90,000 absentee ballot request forms in Linn County voters beginning Monday, ahead of the Secretary of State’s mailings later in the month.

“Maybe that will reinforce to the voters that they need to vote at home when — at least in Linn County — the chief election official in the county and the chief election official in the state are telling them to vote at home,” Miller said.

Despite delivering that message in unison, Miller disagrees with Pate’s insistence that some polls still be open on Election Day.

“Which is like saying, ‘I want to decrease the number of (poll workers) exposed to the virus, but exposing some of them is OK,’” Miller said.

As much as she prefers an all-mail primary, Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz doesn’t think there is time to pull it off correctly.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“We want to move to a vote-by-mail state, but do it right,” Moritz said. “There are so many things to address and doing it in a hurried fashion and making any mistakes could give cause as to why not do vote-by-mail.”

She’s not sure it would even be possible to make the changes needed to conduct the Nov. 3 general election by mail.

Another challenge may be staffing those polling places. Many poll workers come from the ranks of older Iowans, so Pate has made a poll worker recruitment push to encourage people not in COVID-19 high-risk categories to step up.

So far, auditors report that only a few poll working stalwarts have bowed out of the primary.

In Linn County, 16 of 19 polling station chairs have confirmed they will work Election Day. However, Miller is preparing a contingency plan to shrink the number of polling places in the event he doesn’t have enough workers.

Weipert reported that in Johnson County, of the 281 responses from 515 poll workers sent a survey, 10 no longer want to be poll workers and 36 are unwilling to work the primary, but gave no reason. One person mentioned COVID-19 as a reason and three others emailed him about COVID-19.

“No one asked what, if any, measures we are taking,” Weipert said.

Veeder has reduced the number of Black Hawk County polling places from 62 to seven and although he hasn’t had a problem getting enough precinct workers, “we are identifying backup workers in case workers back out.”

No one seems to think it will be necessary to call out the National Guard as Wisconsin did for its recent primary. Unless Guard members were in civilian clothes, “it’s a horrible idea,” Weipert said.

“The optics to the world seeing uniformed military at our polls would legitimize some of the Third World despots who use the military in their countries to conduct elections,” Miller said.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Moritz has reached out to teachers’ groups and unions that may have workers idled by COVID-19 to recruit poll workers. One challenge for her and other auditors, especially in larger counties, is “creating alternative methods to training our workers because of the social distancing aspect.”

Typically, she already would have had several training sessions with between 100 and 150 people in each.

Pate and auditors acknowledge challenges come with every election. Moritz is confident election officials are up to this challenge.

“We prepare for disasters all the time in elections,” Moritz said. “This is yet just another bump in the road. I have faith with all the knowledge within our organization and all 99 auditors and commissioners of elections that we can and will execute this to ensure safe, balanced and fair elections will take place.”

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

FYI

Eligible Iowans who have not registered to vote or updated their registration have until May 22 to preregister to ensure the absentee ballot request form goes to the correct address. For information on Election Day registration, visit the Iowa Secretary of State’s website.

For the first time, Iowans who are 17 years old but will be 18 by Nov. 3 can vote in the June primary. You can register to vote online or download a printable voter registration form from the Secretary of State.

Polling sites will be open for the June 2 primary election, but many will be combined with other precincts. Voters should check with their county auditor before going to the polls. Curbside voting is an option for Iowans with disabilities, those who might have trouble entering a polling place, and Iowans who are in the Center for Disease Control’s at-risk population for COVID-19.

Iowans can download a printable absentee ballot request form from the Secretary of State’s office.

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.