Government

Buoyed by Iowa's primary turnout, auditors push absentee ballot requests

Local auditors already preparing for November general election

Boxes of absentee ballots, waiting to be mailed before the June 2 primary elections, are stacked May 19 at the Jean Oxle
Boxes of absentee ballots, waiting to be mailed before the June 2 primary elections, are stacked May 19 at the Jean Oxley Public Service Center in southwest Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Sure, the calendar says July. But for election officials, it’s already November.

A month after a June 2 primary hit record participation, county auditors are completing plans for the Nov. 3 general election that will include the presidential race, a U.S. Senate contest and four U.S. House races as well as contests for the Iowa Legislature and county offices.

“We know that a lot of people think that you just show up, fill out the oval, put it in the machine that counts it and that’s it,” Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert said.

But what many voters don’t understand are “the weeks and months of planning that goes on behind the scenes, the amount of staff that we have to bring in to start ramping up,” he said.

“I mean we’re talking within two weeks starting to mail out these absentee ballot requests, so we’re already in November election mode,” Weipert said.

Building on what local election officials have learned over the years and especially from the June primary, many county auditors will soon be sending out absentee ballot request forms.

They can begin accepting requests from voters on Monday — 120 days before the election. Weipert and Linn County Auditor Joel Miller say there is no lack of interest in casting absentee ballots in the pandemic.

“We’re already seeing demand, getting requests,” Miller said.

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For the primary, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate sent request forms to voters to encourage absentee voting as a way of slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus — voting by mail or drop-off instead of in-person.

The 531,131 ballots cast as a result broke the primary election record of 449,490 votes in 1994.

However, to do that for the general election under a new state law, Pate now would have to get permission from the Republican-controlled Legislative Council, which has not shown a willingness to give their fellow Republican the go-ahead.

But Miller, Weipert and many other county auditors will send out the forms to active voters. They’re hoping for the same record-setting response they saw in the primary. That would allow them to reduce the number of polling stations and poll workers needed to accommodate in-person voting. Reducing in-person voting would help limit the possibility of community spread of COVID-19.

Beginning in July, auditors plan to begin mailing forms to active voters — citizens who have voted in at least one general election in the past four years and to whom election mail has been sent and not returned.

That’s about 146,000 or 94 percent of all registered voters in Linn County. In Johnson County, that’s about 90,000 active voters or 82 percent of all registered.

Miller and Weipert will be sending forms prefilled with voters’ personal identification number in hopes of avoiding confusion caused by people entering their Social Security numbers or driver’s license numbers.

If they return the form, voters will get a postcard confirming the auditors’ receipt of the request for a ballot.

Weipert will begin mailings in July to some of the outlying communities in Johnson County, but because of the transitory nature of University of Iowa students, he’ll wait until August to complete the form mailings.

The absentee ballots themselves can be mailed out Oct. 5, 29 days before the election.

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As requests come in, auditors can tweak their plans for Nov. 3 to determine how many polling stations and poll workers will be needed.

“Let’s just say for an example, in Iowa City Precinct 1, 85 percent of the people have already voted via absentee. Well, then we’re only going to send out three workers to that site,” Weipert said. “There’s no reason to send four or five because we know they’re not going to be busy.”

Knowing that in advance, he’ll be able to direct resources where they’ll be needed most.

The vote-at-home campaign is expensive, largely because of the postage involved, auditors say. However, there may be some savings on the back end because they’ll hire fewer poll workers and have less part-time office help in November.

“We feel justified in what we’re doing because we assume that conditions in November will be the same as June,” Miller said, adding that seasonal flu likely will also be a concern in the fall.

Miller also plans to have ballot drop-off boxes at Hy-Vee stores in Marion and on Edgewood Road and Johnson Avenue. Rather than have typical satellite voting sites, Miller is considering a drive-through voting program that could be used in outlying communities.

Early, in-person voting will be available from Oct. 5 to Nov. 2.

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

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