Government

Supervisors back Linn County Auditor's ballot drop boxes to accept 2020 absentee votes

Iowa Secretary of State says boxes are illegal

#x201c;That surprised every auditor on the call that they're now deciding drop boxes are illegal,#x201d; Linn County Aud
“That surprised every auditor on the call that they’re now deciding drop boxes are illegal,” Linn County Auditor Joel Miller says. (The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Linn County supervisors on Wednesday unanimously approved Linn County Auditor Joel Miller’s request to designate election drop boxes as county-provided accessories of the auditor’s office.

That designation will allow voters to drop their ballots into the drop boxes set up for the Nov. 3 general election, Miller said.

The Iowa Secretary of State’s Office has said Iowa law does not allow ballots to be left in drop boxes, but that county auditors can set up a no-contact delivery system for ballots in an office during regular business hours.

During county auditor training sessions last week, Miller said he and other auditors were caught off guard when the Secretary of State’s Office said the drop boxes were illegal to use to collect ballots.

“That surprised every auditor on the call that they’re now deciding dropboxes are illegal, which appears to me to be another avenue to oppress people who are voting by mail,” Miller told The Gazette on Wednesday,

Kevin Hall, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office, said the issue arose because “there were complaints about one county auditor placing unsecured and unsupervised ballot dropboxes next to trash cans at a grocery store.”

Hall said the office asked the Attorney General for legal guidance and said “these are in clear violation of Iowa Code.”

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“Our view is that county auditors can provide a secure, no-contact ballot delivery system at their office building,” Hall said. “Auditors must take all reasonable and necessary steps to ensure their security. We will be offering auditors additional guidance on ways to accomplish that within the next few days.”

Hall said voters that vote absentee can send their requests for a ballot through the U.S. Postal Service mailboxes, the voter’s own mailbox, at a satellite voting location or at the county auditor’s office.

Miller used drop boxes for the June primary election, which saw record turnout in Iowa due to a big increase in absentee voting.

He set up the box when county buildings were closed from March until July 20 because of the novel coronavirus. He then added another drop box at the Public Services Building.

“It went well,” Miller said. “We had a number of people drop their ballots in the box until 9 p.m. on the Election Day.”

Miller’s strategy of locating drop boxes around the county, including at a few Hy-Vee grocery stores, is uncommon. Most counties that use drop boxes tend to place them on county property.

Miller said county supervisors are responsible for providing supplies and accessories for county offices, so by having the board recognize the dropboxes as county-provided accessories, the boxes are extensions of his office, he said.

“I didn’t want there to be any problems with the drop boxes that we have with the locations at the Hy-Vees for what is my office and what is not my office,” Miller said. “That was the intention of the declaration the board approved, to officially legalize those as parcels of my office.”

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Supervisor Brent Oleson said he was willing to adopt Miller’s statement because he said a drop box is the equivalent of a post office mailbox.

“It’s an extension of his office, and we’ve always viewed it that way,” Oleson said during the meeting. “It’s just a different form to receive information. I can’t even believe it would be disputed.

“We’re doubling down on what we believe. It’s no different than a post office box you drop mail into or a sheriff’s office having a prescription medication drop-off. At the front of our building, the treasurer’s office has a box to drop off property taxes.”

The supervisors made the declaration retroactive to April, when the first box was established due to the pandemic.

Some counties have used drop boxes for years within county facility buildings while some added boxes this past spring after county buildings closed to the public.

President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign has sued Linn, Johnson and Woodbury counties, seeking to invalidate voters’ absentee ballot applications mailed by those county auditors because they included the name and address of the voter on them.

The campaign, the Republican National Committee and other Republican groups are asking for a temporary injunction to require the auditor to invalidate the requests that have been returned to the offices and inform voters to complete the blank forms sent from by Iowa Secretary of State.

During a hearing in Linn County District Court on Thursday morning, the county will argue that the GOP and Trump lack standing and haven’t identified the statute Miller violated in sending out those forms. It will argue the action should be against the Secretary of State’s Office, not the auditor and the county.

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Trump repeatedly has said and tweeted that mail-in voting will lead to “widespread voter fraud,” while also having stated he believes absentee voting “is great.”

Much absentee voting is done by mail.

Each of the 50 U.S. states governs its own voting rules. Thirty-four states, including Iowa, allow for mail-in voting without having to offer a reason to cast an absentee ballot.

Comments: (319) 398-8255; gage.miskimen@thegazette.com

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