Government

Mailing codes could have called close Iowa race

Law allows option that may have kept House vote out of court

Cedar Rapids residents vote early at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, October 14, 2014. The voting station was setup for the day after undergraduate students at Mount Mercy submitted a petition to the Linn County Auditor's Office with the 100 signatures required. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids residents vote early at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, October 14, 2014. The voting station was setup for the day after undergraduate students at Mount Mercy submitted a petition to the Linn County Auditor's Office with the 100 signatures required. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
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Despite having been mailed back before the November election, 29 absentee ballots in Northeast Iowa’s House District 55 race — which was decided by a mere nine votes — were never postmarked and therefore cannot be counted, state officials say.

But they could have been counted by now if Winneshiek County had availed itself of a safeguard the Iowa Legislature approved two years ago — an “intelligent bar code” that can verify if mailed-in ballots meet the deadline even if they are not postmarked.

That safeguard is voluntary, and currently is used by only seven of Iowa’s 99 counties. It adds a few pennies to the cost of each mailed-in ballot, and takes time to set up.

But there is no assurance the Postal Service will postmark each letter, and therefore no assurance that absentee votes mailed in on time will ever be counted.

The Benton County Auditor’s Office began using the bar code safeguards in 2016. Gina Elder, Benton County deputy auditor, said the bar codes — a unique one is printed on every absentee ballot return envelope — require working with the postal service. Once it’s set up, the system can provide the dates and locations when the bar codes were scanned during processing in the postal system.

In the 2018 midterm election, Benton County voters mailed in 3,369 absentee ballots. Of the four absentee ballots that did not include a postmark, three could be verified using an intelligent mail bar code.

“It is time-consuming, I’m not going to deny that, but I do think it was successful. We went in and were able to track and allow those ballots to be counted,” Elder said.

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“We want the votes to count. We want to help the voters, that’s our job, to help them get their ballots counted.”

Besides Benton, only Cerro Gordo, Clinton, Dubuque, Jones, Marshall and Woodbury counties use the bar codes, according to the Iowa Secretary of State.

House District 55 includes parts of Clayton, Fayette and Winneshiek counties. A recount concluded that Republican incumbent Michael Bergan was the winner of the Nov. 6 election over Democratic challenger Kayla Koether by a margin of nine votes.

But then there’s the matter of 33 absentee ballots that arrived in Winneshiek County afterward — and had no valid postmarks to verify whether they were posted before the deadline.

Earlier this month, District Court Judge Scott Beattie ordered an evaluation of postal service bar code information on the 33 uncounted absentee ballots. Postal officials verified that 29 of those ballots were mailed before Nov. 5.

Koether wants those 29 ballots to be opened and counted. Iowa House Democrats also have weighed in, amassing 10,000 signatures from residents who want the votes counted, according to a news release Friday.

“This issue is now much bigger than just the final outcome of this race,” Koether said in the release. “Our Iowa Motto reads, ‘Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.’ No matter how these votes affect the final tally, each of these people cast their ballot on time, legally, and in good faith. It’s crucial that we stand up for these Northeast Iowans, demand that their votes be counted, and protect their voting rights now and into the future. The only responsible course is to maintain Iowa’s high standards in fair and transparent elections.”

A court hearing is scheduled for next week.

But Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said in an email that without a postmark or envelope bar code from the auditor’s office — not the post office — the votes “are not eligible to be counted under Iowa law.”

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“As Secretary of State, I swear an oath to uphold the Constitution and Laws of the State of Iowa, and I support every eligible vote being counted. Trying to change the rules after an election is not the way elections work in Iowa,” Pate said.

He also noted that all absentee ballots in Iowa include a disclaimer that postmarks are not guaranteed by the post office.

State Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, was a sponsor of House File 2273 in 2016 that gave auditors the option of using an intelligent bar code to tell if a ballot was mailed before the deadline.

Under the “emergency provisions” section of the bill, which was passed unanimously by the House and Senate and had Pate’s support, county auditors can count a ballot if it is received before the close of an Election Day or is either postmarked or bears an intelligent bar code “traceable to a date of entry into the federal mail system” not later than the day before the election and received by the auditor no later than noon of the Monday following the election.

Danielson said his preference was to eliminate the postmark requirement completely “because we knew the postal system couldn’t guarantee a postmark.”

“The law was flawed from the get-go,” he said, “because the state is, in effect, relying on a third-party vendor to maintain chain of custody.”

Danielson pointed out that in 2008, he was re-elected by just 22 votes after three hand counts.

“I want to make sure it’s secure, but count the darn votes,” he said.

Ken Kline, deputy commissioner of elections with the Iowa Secretary of State, said the bar codes do come with a cost — it’s about 3 cents extra per ballot.

In Linn County, Auditor Joel Miller said he might consider intelligent mail bar codes, but he’d rather see the law changed entirely.

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“Either require 100 percent of Iowa’s counties to use (the bar codes) or change the deadline to receive all ballots to before 9 p.m. on Election Day. Uniformity and consistency across all 99 counties should be the most important factor considered for fair elections,” he said in an email Friday.

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

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