Staff Editorial

Count the ballots, and clarify the law

A box of ballot envelopes is seen on a shelf in a basement room at the Jean Oxley Public Service Center in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
A box of ballot envelopes is seen on a shelf in a basement room at the Jean Oxley Public Service Center in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Iowans cannot disregard 29 election ballots that were, unequivocally, cast properly in House District 55.

The ballots in question were part of a group of 33 that arrived at the Winneshiek County Auditor’s Office after Election Day without an official postmark by the U.S. Postal Service. Instead, these absentee ballots were stamped with a bar code by the Postal Service, and a court-ordered reading of those codes proved 29 of the 33 ballots were mailed on time.

While Iowa law allows county auditors to use bar codes to determine if absentee ballots were mailed on time — a change made by lawmakers in 2016 — only six of the state’s 99 counties choose to do so. Winneshiek is not one of them, and has created local policy that ballots arriving without a postmark are discarded.

At issue is the wording of Iowa’s relatively new election law, which does not appear to offer a clear distinction as to what bar codes double as a verification tool. Does the law apply only to bar codes assigned by some county auditors and/or their third-party vendors as part of the absentee ballot process? While we continue to ask this and similar questions, we don’t yet have clear answers on legislative intent, or its practical ramifications.

What is all too clear, however, is that all absentee ballots cast in Iowa are not subject to the same rules. That’s a problem, which should be concerning to us all.

Adding to the current dilemma in Winneshiek County is a nine-vote spread between the candidates in Iowa House District 55. While the outcome won’t tip the Republican majority in the Iowa House, it could flip a currently red seat to blue. And that releases the unwelcome specter of partisanship since the only recourse for the Democratic candidate, according to Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, is to launch an appeal within the GOP-controlled House. A court hearing on Dec. 20 may force a different outcome.

There is no time when the notion of disregarding legally cast ballots strikes a good chord. Following two years of new and costly state mandates aimed at safeguarding elections, such a decision hits an especially sour note.

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No one knows if counting these ballots will change anything. They remain sealed, the votes unknown. Without opening and tallying them, the will of voters remains in question.

Voters — at least 29 of them, but who knows exactly how many — are at risk of being disenfranchised. The Iowa Legislature must step in with clear and consistent guidance for county auditors.

Geography shouldn’t determine the validity of absentee ballots that were cast on time.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

Updated Monday, Dec. 17: A previous version of this editorial incorrectly reported the disputed ballots arrived at the Winneshiek County Auditor’s Office on Election Day. There are 29 ballots that arrived after Election Day, but have barcodes showing they were sent before Election Day, as required by Iowa law.

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