80 percent of votes in Iowa could be absentee, top election official predicts

Secretary of State Paul Pate addresses challenges to voting amid coronavirus pandemic

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate talks with a class at Kennedy High School in October 2018 in Cedar Rapids. Pate on Wed
Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate talks with a class at Kennedy High School in October 2018 in Cedar Rapids. Pate on Wednesday predicted as many as 80 percent of ballots cast in Iowa this November may be absentee. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — While attorneys were in court Wednesday afternoon arguing whether actions by the Johnson County auditor to encourage absentee voting were appropriate, the state’s top election official was on a national webinar predicting that as many as four out of five Iowa voters will choose that option.

“I easily could see 80 percent of the people casting their ballot in the fall election will use absentee,” Secretary of State Paul Pate said during a National Conference of State Legislatures webinar.

That would match the absentee vote in the June primary that shattered turnout records. More than 531,000 Iowans voted in the primary, with about 110,000 of them voting in person.

Typically, he said, about 40 percent of Iowa voters cast absentee ballots.

“As we all know, nothing has been typical about 2020,” Pate said.

As it did ahead of the primary, the Secretary of State’s Office has mailed absentee ballot request forms to about 2 million active voters in an effort to reduce the potential for COVID-19 spread at in-person voting sites.

Pate estimated about 10,000 poll workers are needed to staff all polling places, but by pushing absentee voting in June, county auditors were able to reduce the number of in-person polling places from around 1,600 to about 500.

“We were having challenges with recruiting poll workers,” he said, adding, “our typical poll worker is senior citizen-age or in the high-risk population in the COVID-19 scenario.”

A recruitment effort in June enlisted about 1,000 potential poll workers and now is at 4,500 “and growing,” Pate said.


His decision to mail out absentee ballot request forms before the primary was not universally praised, Pate said, but he defended it as necessary to ensure the safety and security of the election.

“As election managers, we prepare for the worst, but we hope for the best,” he said.

“That’s what we’re going to be doing as we look into November,” Pate added when asked what the Secretary of State’s Office would do if an increase in COVID-19 cases led to that worst-case scenario. “We do have the experience, and I guess I’m comfortable that we can ramp that up and be successful if we see a COVID-19 crisis.”

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