Staff Editorial

How do Iowans vote during a pandemic?

Coronavirus serves as a reminder of why we need strong absentee voting systems

A voting booth is prepared for early voting in special elections at the auditor's office at the Jean Oxley Linn County P
A voting booth is prepared for early voting in special elections at the auditor's office at the Jean Oxley Linn County Public Service Center in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, March 14, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Iowa is heading into an election season during a pandemic, and state officials are adamant that the June 2 primary will go forth as scheduled. Iowans must plan now to reduce in-person turnout on Election Day.

Since there does not appear to be enough preparation time or political support for closing polling places and switching to an all-mail election, we applaud election commissioners who are acting aggressively to put as many absentee ballots as possible into Iowa voters’ mailboxes.

This week, Secretary of State Paul Pate signed an emergency directive to extend the early voting period in Iowa. That allows county auditors to send out absentee ballots 11 days sooner, on April 23.

Iowans can request a vote-by-mail ballot by sending a form from the Secretary of State’s website to their local county auditor.

In the corridor, Linn County Auditor Joel Miller and Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert are collaborating on a campaign to promote vote-by-mail through the media and digital advertisements. Other auditors should follow suit.

County officials have the authority to reduce the number of polling places, but that’s a difficult decision.

On one hand, a surge of Election Day voters to relatively few voting sites could cram large numbers of people into small spaces at a time when we have no idea what the status of the virus will be.

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On the other hand, if the early voting drive is successful, there will be little need to open sites in every precinct. That’s an especially important goal since we heavily rely on older Iowans to staff our polling places.

We urge leaders to carefully balance a range of factors when deciding how many polling places to host on June 2.

The coronavirus outbreak is a reminder of why we need a robust absentee voting system. It must be noted that the 40-day early voting time frame Pate ordered this week was already the law before Republican legislators shortened it to 29 days under a 2017 law.

A handful of states conduct all of their elections by mail, and nearly half the states allow some local elections to be carried out with mail ballots. Not Iowa, though. Several jurisdictions elsewhere have recorded increased turnout and decreased costs with exclusive vote-by-mail.

Stopping in-person voting would be a huge change for Iowa, but maybe it’s something to consider after the pandemic passes. At the very least we should have local control and some mechanism for activating a statewide mail election when the need arises. We are living through exhibit A.

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

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