CORONAVIRUS

Iowa election officials pushing vote by mail for June primary

Officials concerned how November election will be conducted

#x201c;I Voted Today#x201d; stickers are seen on a table at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa City for voters on Tuesda
“I Voted Today” stickers are seen on a table at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa City for voters on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — There will be a June 2 primary election in Iowa, elections officials pledge.

But those officials are encouraging voters to submit their ballots early through the mail in order to sidestep voting in-person on Election Day while the state still may be dealing with the novel coronavirus pandemic.

So serious is he about encouraging Iowans to vote by mail that Secretary of State Paul Pate, the state’s top elections official, plans to mail every registered voter in the state an absentee ballot request form for the June primary.

Pate considered going to a 100 percent vote-by-mail election. He shelved that idea for the June primary, but it remains on the table for the November general election, if the virus still is spreading in Iowa this fall.

“We’ve had to adapt,” Pate said. “It’s very fluid.”

Iowa’s June 2 primary election features multiple competitive federal races. Five Democrats seek their party’s nomination in U.S. Senate race to face Republican incumbent Joni Ernst. In Western Iowa’s 4th Congressional District, four Republicans are challenging incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Steve King. And in Eastern Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District, two Republicans seek the nomination in what will be an open-seat race to replace the retiring U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, D- Iowa City.

The June 2 election ballots also will include primary races for Statehouse and local races.

Pate and county auditors statewide are in strong terms encouraging Iowa primary election voters to use the absentee process to vote by mail. Through the absentee process, Iowans submit to their county auditor a request for a ballot, which is then mailed to their home. Voters then complete the ballot and mail it back.

As the world continues to deal with a virus that is highly contagious, Iowa elections officials are taking steps to ensure as many people vote as possible while limiting the number of people who vote in-person to as few as possible. While elections officials also are taking steps to protect the health of voters and election workers on Election Day, the best way to avoid spreading the virus is to limit social interaction.

Most people who are infected with the virus will experience mild, flu-like symptoms or even no symptoms at all. Some populations, including older individuals and people with previous health issues, are more susceptible to symptoms the respiratory virus including death, according to health experts.

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“We just don’t want people to come on voting day,” said Pat Gill, auditor for Woodbury County. “The message has been vote at home and stay at home.”

Pate also extended the window in which Iowans can request a ballot and vote through the early absentee process. Voters already can request a ballot, and early voting by mail begins April 23, more than five weeks before the June 2 election.

“We’re going to be aggressively promoting and encouraging folks: ‘Please vote by mail through the absentee process,’” Pate said. “That’s the avenue we think they should consider doing … for safety reasons, if anything else.”

Local elections officials are marching with Pate in this messaging.

“We hope that as many people as possible will vote by absentee ballot so that there will be a bare minimum of people going to the polls on Election Day,” said Grant Veeder, auditor for Black Hawk County.

Roxanna Moritz, the auditor for Scott County, said she hopes to send the message to Iowa voters that auditors want them to vote but also “that we’re worried about not just the safety of yourself, but of the citizenry.”

“The public’s safety is more important to me than anything, because you are risking the community, the poll workers, everybody,” she said.

While they are encouraging Iowans to vote early by mail, local elections officials also are taking precautions to make Election Day voting as safe as possible.

Many counties are significantly reducing the number of places where Iowans can vote. The vast reductions in polling precincts means counties can employ fewer workers on Election Day.

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Counties are especially keen to reduce the number of election workers since those volunteers typically trend older, and older individuals are among the most susceptible to the virus.

“You have to be worried about (older poll workers) and worried about their safety,” Moritz said.

Auditors are taking other steps, too. Some plan to place tape on the floor of voting sites to show voters exactly where to go and to help them practice safe social distancing while voting. Some plan to have barriers constructed to prevent physical contact. Auditors also said they will have plenty of hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes at voting sites.

Officials also noted Iowans can participate in curbside voting on Election Day. In that process, workers at the voting site bring a ballot to the voter’s car, and the voter fills out the ballot there.

Pate said his office briefly considered moving Iowa’s June primary to an entirely vote-by-mail election.

But after talking to elections officials in states that currently conduct their elections fully through the mail — including Washington and Oregon — Pate decided against it for the June primary. He said those officials described how it took them years to establish their vote-by-mail election systems.

However, Pate said if the coronavirus still is spreading through Iowa and causing infections and deaths this fall, he will consider a vote-by-mail election for the November general election. In addition to those congressional races, the general election ballots will include the race for president.

In some ways, Pate said he is having to prepare for two November elections: a best-case and worst-case scenario.

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“If this thing doesn’t get better before the fall elections, we may be faced with an all-mail campaign effort instead of polling sites,” he said.

Local officials said they, too, understood that trying to implement an all-mail election for the June primary would have been asking too much with too little time available. But some said they believe their offices could handle it if state officials decide that would be best for the November general election.

“If that’s the recommendation, I believe that we could deal with that. … I think we could handle it here,” said Gill, the auditor in Woodbury County. “My hope is that we can at least do what we’re doing for these elections now, which is we would mostly (encourage) people to vote at home through the absentee request forms and limit our polling places. If it came to that point. …

“I think we could do vote by mail. But it is scary to do it the first time.”

Auditors said such a transition would be complicated and require new equipment, more and different supplies and extensive voter education efforts. For that reason, Veeder, the Black Hawk County auditor, said state and local elections officials should already be making their contingency plans for a potential all-mail November election.

“I understand that switching to an all vote-by-mail system in time for the November election would be very difficult and would not be advisable under normal circumstances,” Veeder said. “However, given the lack of certainty about the length and severity of the pandemic, and given the extreme importance of elections in our form of government, the state should make contingency plans for an all-mail election in November.”

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