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Local and state leaders in Iowa continue to clash over use of absentee ballot drop boxes, ballot request forms


There are four drop boxes set up around Linn County, including one in front of the Jean Oxley Public Service Center in Cedar Rapids. Aug. 26, 2020. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

The Iowa Secretary of State’s Office is saying Iowa law does not allow county auditors to use drop boxes for absentee ballots, but Linn County is pushing back.

Kevin Hall, a spokesperson for Secretary of State Paul Pate, told the Des Moines Register that “auditors do not have authority to establish a ballot drop box system in their county.” Hall added that auditors do have the ability to set up a “no-contact delivery system for voters in their office to use during regular business hours.”

The Secretary of State’s legal counsel provided a PowerPoint presentation on Aug. 20 to county auditors with a conclusion that counties should not use drop boxes, according to a document included as part of the Linn County Board of Supervisors Wednesday agenda.

Referring to Iowa Code, the legal counsel said absentee ballot envelopes must be returned “to the commissioner’s office no later than the time the polls are closed on election day,” implying that the drop boxes are not part of the commissioner’s office.

Counties across the state have previously used a drop box system to collect ballots, some as recently as June’s primary election. Emails shared with the Register showed that at least 39 auditors said they’ve used drop boxes during past elections.

A record-breaking number of Iowans voted in the June primary, with almost 80 percent of people voting by mail. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it’s likely that voters will again want to vote absentee.

Linn County Auditor Joel Miller asked the Board of Supervisors on Wednesday to approve a statement that would make it clear the county views the drop boxes as an extension of the auditor’s office.

Utilizing Iowa Code §331.322, the Linn County Board of Supervisors designates Linn County election drop boxes as county-provided accessories of the Linn County Auditor’s Office, such drop boxes provided for the necessary acceptance of absentee voting materials for the 2020 general election.

The part of Iowa Code the statement refers to is titled “Duties relating to county and township officers” and lists various responsibilities of the board, including providing county officers with supplies needed to do their jobs.

“It’s equivalent to a post office mailbox,” Supervisor Brent Oleson said during Wednesday’s meeting. “It’s an extension of his office. I think we’ve always viewed it that way. It’s just a different form to receive information. … I can’t believe it would be disputed.”

The board unanimously voted to approve the statement and made it retroactive to April 23, when the first drop box was set up due to the pandemic.

Linn County Board of Supervisors Meeting Wednesday, August 26, 2020. Comments are not moderated.

Posted by Linn County, Iowa on Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Iowa Public Radio reported on Wednesday evening, after Linn County’s Board of Supervisors meeting, that Hall said drop boxes “must be secured to the building where the county auditor’s office is located” and that the office will provide additional information to local officials across the state.

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There are four secure drop boxes in Linn County, but they are placed around the county and are not attached to the auditor’s office.

• Linn County Public Service Center, 935 2nd St. SW, Cedar Rapids

• Marion Hy-Vee, 3600 Business Highway 151, Marion

• Edgewood Hy-Vee, 5050 Edgewood Rd NE, Cedar Rapids

• Johnson Avenue Hy-Vee, 1843 Johnson Ave NW, Cedar Rapids

Miller told IPR the drop boxes are placed under active video cameras and are emptied five days a week by two people, one Republican and one Democrat.

Little Village emailed Hall on Thursday for clarification on where this leaves the county’s four drop boxes since they are not attached to the auditor’s office and what this means for votes that have already been cast in these drop boxes, but has not yet received a reply.

The four drop boxes around Linn County are placed under active video cameras and are emptied five days a week by two people, one Republican and one Democrat. Aug. 26, 2020. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

The dispute over drop boxes is just one of the clashes in Iowa over absentee voting ahead of the November election.

State and local officials also disagree on how absentee ballot request forms should be sent to voters. The Trump campaign, Republican Party of Iowa and two national Republican campaign committees have filed lawsuits against the auditors of Johnson, Linn and Woodbury County.

Miller, Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert and Woodbury County Auditor Pat Gill have been sending out applications with pre-filled voter information, an action the Republican groups called “going rogue.” The lawsuit alleges the auditors overstepped their authority and undermines the state’s election security.

The lawsuit against Miller seeks to nullify about 50,000 absentee ballot requests that have been returned and require the forms to be thrown out. The voters would then have to fill out new blank forms on their own.

Judge Ian Thornhill heard arguments on Thursday and said he will issue a written ruling for the Linn County lawsuit soon, the Associated Press reported. Another hearing is set for Friday in Woodbury County.

The AP also reported that Pate has sent Miller a “notice of technical infraction” for sending out absentee ballot requests with information already filled in. The AP said Pate, a Republican, has also asked the Iowa Attorney General and the Linn County Attorney to investigate Miller, a Democrat, for possibly violating state law.

In requesting the investigations, Pate said there was no “legitimate purpose” for Miller to send out absentee ballot request with voter information already filled in. Miller has said his office did so to make it easier for people to vote absentee during the pandemic.


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