‘We’re doing whatever we can to help the voter’: Iowa county auditors discuss early voting, concerns about the mail and preparing for a record turnout

USPS sorting facility in 2014. — USPS TV

A record number of Iowans — nearly a quarter of the state’s population — have requested absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 election, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

Secretary of State Paul Pate announced last Friday there had been 703,768 request forms submitted by voters across the state. The previous record of 693,000 requests was set in 2016.

Voting by mail and voting early in-person, which began last week in Iowa, are widely considered to be the safest options for voters during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Iowa, more than 100,000 people have now tested positive for the virus and nearly 1,500 have died.

The desire to vote before Election Day is not unique to Iowa — millions of Americans are voting early “at an unprecedented pace” for the general election. But despite mail voting proving to be safe and secure, President Donald Trump has repeatedly made false claims and attacked voting by mail, including during the Sept. 29 debate with Joe Biden.

“This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen,” Trump said during the debate.

Some Iowa voters are expressing concerns over these and other ballot-related issues, according to county auditors Little Village spoke with. The auditors, who are responsible for running elections in each county, said people have been calling with questions about the postal service, how secure voting by mail really is, and even asking if they should fill out multiple request forms in case their form gets lost in the mail.

The auditors, however, all said they are confident in the system and emphasized that votes will be counted regardless of how Iowans choose to cast their ballots.

“People should feel comfortable still voting by mail,” Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert told Little Village. “You request your [absentee ballot] from us [and] get a ballot from us. You don’t have to mail it back. You can drive it to the drop off spot, deliver it to the office, take it to a satellite location. … People should feel safe voting by mail.”

The Linn County Auditor’s office set up an early in-person voting site in the food court of Lindale Mall, 4444 1st Ave NE ahead of the 2020 general election. Oct. 6, 2020. — Jessica Abdoney/Little Village

June primary was a “test run”

A record-breaking number of Iowans voted in the June primary, with almost 80 percent of people voting by mail. The primary was about three months after the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Iowa.

Washington County Auditor Dan Widmer called the June primary a “test run” for the general election. He said out of the 3,226 residents that voted in his county, about 82 percent voted absentee.

“I think that a lot of people discovered that absentee voting is quick, it’s easy, and with regard to the coronavirus, it was a way to vote safely at home without having to go to the polls,” Widmer said.

“One thing we did learn was that we needed some extra help,” Widmer said, adding that each of the polling places in the county will have five workers instead of four. The extra person will help with cleaning, sanitizing and other tasks that need to be taken care of.

Sioux County Auditor Ryan Dokter echoed Widmer’s comments about the June primary as a test run and adjusting ahead of the general election.

“The things that we saw as issues in June, we were able to communicate that to the Secretary of State’s office and other organizations that have been doing these mailings,” Doktor said.

The statewide turnout for the primary was about 24 percent. Linn County Auditor Joel Miller is estimating the turnout for the general election is going to be closer to 75 percent — about three times the amount of voters as the primary.

Absentee ballot request forms sent by the Johnson County Auditor. — Genevieve Trainor/Little Village

Confusion over the number of request forms

Weipert said “we did not expect” the scale of absentee voting in the June primary. The high rate of voting by mail was largely driven by the Secretary of State’s decision to mail out absentee request forms to every registered voter for the primary.

Following some back and forth between Pate and Republican leaders of the Iowa Legislature, the Secretary of State’s office mailed out absentee ballot request forms for the general election to everyone listed as an active voter on the state’s voter rolls in early September.

A number of county auditors also mailed out request forms to the registered voters in their county. And on top of that, political parties and other organizations were sending selected voters absentee ballot request forms.

What resulted was voters getting multiple absentee ballot request forms, even after they had submitted one.

Weipert and Widmer both said the various request forms have been confusing voters. Dokter said a woman came into his office with nine uncompleted request forms, asking why she kept receiving the forms when she planned to vote in person.

Individuals who fill out and submit multiple request forms will only get one ballot, but it does create extra work for auditors’ offices since the information has to be entered into the system.

“We get multiple requests all the time,” Miller told Little Village in early September. “During the June 2 primary, I recall one person who sent us five requests. I was talking to another auditor last night, and he said up to 20 percent of the requests they’re getting right now are duplicates.”

The Linn County Auditor’s office set up an early in-person voting site in the food court of Lindale Mall, 4444 1st Ave NE ahead of the 2020 general election. Oct. 6, 2020. — Jessica Abdoney/Little Village

Widmer said some voters were also unaware that Oct. 5 was when auditors could start sending out absentee ballots.

“We had people who called and were confused or concerned that they had sent an absentee ballot request into us three weeks ago, maybe even longer than that, and that they had not received their ballot yet,” he recounted. “The reason was we were prohibited from sending it out until Monday, so that’s caused some concerns and questions for people.”

For anyone who submitted or plans to submit an absentee ballot request form after Oct. 5, auditors are required to send out those ballots within 24 hours. Iowans have until Oct. 24 to request an absentee ballot.

For Sioux County, Dokter said getting ballots mailed out in 24 hours during the June primary “was extremely difficult” at times to meet the demand. Dokter said this hasn’t been a challenge for his office ahead of the general election. Mondays tend to be the busiest days with anywhere from 200 to 300 requests coming in from over the weekend on a big day, he said. During the other days of the week, under 100 request forms come in.

“It’s kind of tapered off,” Dokter said.

Despite what might be a record-breaking number of absentee ballots cast, the county auditors expressed confidence in being able to keep up with the requests.

“My guess is that we’ll probably see record absentee voting here in Johnson County,” Weipert said.

“Can we handle it? Yes. But, of course, anytime you say ‘yes, you can handle it’ we just don’t know what the size of it is going to be. … We’re working with Linn County. We have a [mutual aid agreement for elections] with them to share equipment, so if something were to go wrong, they can help us out.”

Auditors “doing whatever we can” to help voters

What really frustrated Weipert during the Sept. 29 debate between Trump and Biden were Trump’s comments on how ballots shouldn’t be counted after Election Day.

During the debate, Trump said:

Can you imagine where they say “you have to have your ballot in by November 10.” November 10. That means, that’s seven days after the election, in theory should have been announced. We have major states with that, all run by Democrats. It’s a rigged election.

“What really upset me was the fact that he said [ballots] … shouldn’t be able to be counted a week later,” Weipert said about Trump’s comments. “Well, Iowa law says they can be. It upsets me because that freaks people out here in Iowa. It doesn’t matter what party you are, if you mail it in on that Monday and have it postmarked or it goes through the barcode reader, it should count — that’s the law, plain and simple.”

A USPS worker delivers mail in Cedar Rapids on Aug. 15, five days after a devastating derecho left the city in crisis. In addition to COVID-19 and funding cuts, the storm created another hurdle for the safe and efficient delivery of mail in Iowa. — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Black Hawk County Auditor Grant Veeder said his office listens to concerns voters bring up and addresses them “as best we can.” He has heard a number of concerns voiced about the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to handle the increase of mail-in ballots.

According to reporting by the Atlantic, the USPS has the capacity to handle the increased number of mail-in ballots.

The president’s claims about the Postal Service’s existing capabilities are off base, according both to the agency itself and to outside analysts and voting experts. The Postal Service has been preparing for expanded vote-by-mail for months, before the coronavirus pandemic cast doubt on the safety of in-person voting and long before [Louis] DeJoy took office as the nation’s 75th postmaster general in June.

“The Postal Service’s financial condition is not going to impact our ability to process and deliver election and political mail,” Martha Johnson, a USPS spokesperson, told the Atlantic’s Russell Berman. “The Postal Service has ample capacity to adjust our nationwide processing and delivery network to meet projected election and political mail volume, including any additional volume that may result as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Veeder said his office has had direct contact with the local post office in Black Hawk County, as well as the postal service at the state level. Veeder doesn’t think there will be problems with the post office and “trusts the assurances” from post office officials.

Individuals who are voting absentee but don’t want to mail their ballot have the option of dropping it off at their county auditor’s office. Johnson, Linn, Washington, Black Hawk, Sioux and other counties across the state have set up drop boxes outside of the auditor’s office.

“Just fill out your ballot and drive it down here,” Weipert said about Johnson County’s drop boxes. “We’re gonna have two drop boxes outside. Just put it in a drop box, and you’re good to go. You don’t even need to use the post office.”

“We’re doing whatever we can to help the voter.”

One of the ballot drop boxes installed at the Johnson County Administration Building, Oct. 6. 2020. — Paul Brennan/Little Village

Widmer said an issue his office has noticed since early in-person voting began last week is voters who have requested an absentee ballot coming to vote early in person.

“People have been saying, ‘Well, I don’t want to mail my ballot in. I’m just gonna go into the courthouse and vote absentee in person,’” Widmer said. “Well, if you’re going to do that, please bring that absentee ballot with you that you received by mail. Bring that in, and you can complete it at the courthouse if you want and hand it to us. There’s a drop box outside the courthouse that you can use to drop your ballot once it’s completed in that.”

Widmer urged individuals not to throw away their absentee ballots because that complicates things for the office. Dokter, who has seen the same thing happen in Sioux County, is telling voters to be patient as they wait for their ballot to arrive in the mail.

Individuals who want to track their request form or their ballot can use the tracker on the Secretary of State’s website.

“I’m very pleased with our system that we have in place in Iowa for absentee voting, our checks and balances, and I’m confident in the mail service,” Dokter said. “We’ve had minimal issues over the years with anything that’s gone on with elections, and we’ve had those assurances from the mail system as well.”

“I’m confident we’ll have a good election,” Dokter added.

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