CEDAR RAPIDS — When Kathleen Arens completed and mailed back the ballot sent to her this fall from the Linn County Auditor’s Office, the Cedar Rapids resident thought she had completed her civic duty.
But the ballot was a sample, not a valid ballot, and Arens was one 911 people who filled out what was intended as an educational tool for area voters before the Nov. 6 election.
“I thought it was my absentee ballot,” Arens said, adding that she later learned it was a sample through local news coverage. “I thought, ‘Well you know that was really stupid to send those things out.’ It was so confusing.”
Arens is from one of 738 households to mail in sample ballots but ultimately cast votes in the election, according to data provided by the Linn County Auditor’s Office. Another 85 households filled out sample ballots but didn’t vote in the election, and another 88 sample ballots mailed back did not include a return address.
Twenty-two ballots were completed by people who are not registered to vote.
County Auditor Joel Miller said the sample ballots — mailed by the Auditor’s Office to the county’s 90,500 households before the election — were successful in educating voters and boosting turnout.
“We also are happy that that many people responded. Often, voters don’t actually follow through with a vote,” Miller said in an email to The Gazette. “Overall, Linn County had one of the highest voter turnouts in the state. We had approximately 37,000 absentee voters participate and over 102,000 total voters.”
Meanwhile, some argue the sample ballots confused and disenfranchised some area voters.
While none of the Linn County races were decided by just a few votes and the sample ballots don’t appear to have had any major impact on the elections, Brett Nilles, chair of the Linn County Democrats, said it still is important that no resident is left in the dark.
“I think there were probably quite a few people who may have sent it in and thought they had voted and they were done,” Nilles said. “That’s what the whole process is about, making sure everybody has an opportunity to vote and their vote counts.”
The mailers included up-to-date information on state voter ID rules, an absentee ballot request form with return envelope and a sample of the November ballot. However, officials have said the word “Sample” on the ballots became too faded during printing, leading to confusion among some residents.
As residents began filling out and returning sample ballots, some in the community expressed concern that some voters may have thought they voted when in fact they hadn’t. In response, Miller sent letters back to any address that mailed in a sample ballot.
Discussions reached a boiling point when some in the community, including Nilles and county Supervisor Ben Rogers, who ultimately beat Miller in the race for the county’s District 2 supervisors seat, said the auditor was not doing enough to inform residents of the sample ballots.
Miller argued that such questions were political attacks against his campaign.
Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said in a Thursday email that Miller’s “intentions were good, but the execution was problematic.”
“When alerted to the voter confusion, my staff encouraged Auditor Miller to utilize every resource possible to reach all the residents who mistakenly thought the sample ballot was an actual one,” Pate said. “It is disappointing and unfortunate that a misunderstanding may have caused some voters not to vote in the general election.”
Miller said more than 80 percent of those who mailed in sample ballots also cast valid votes in the election.
For comparison, nearly 3,000 Linn County residents requested — yet never returned — their absentee ballot, Miller said.
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Miller said he plans to use sample ballots in future elections, but with some adjustments — he said he’ll print the ballots on colored paper, not include a return envelope and make the word “sample” darker.
“Overall, we still believe that more people voted and were prepared to vote due to the mailer,” Miller said. “We have yet to receive a complaint that anyone was disenfranchised.”
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