Iowa Secretary of State limits use of drop boxes for absentee ballots, leaving Linn County with only one

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

County auditors in Iowa are allowed to collect absentee ballots using drop boxes, as long as they follow the new guidance from the Secretary of State’s Office that limits where those drop boxes can be placed.

The Secretary of State’s Office previously said Iowa law does not allow county auditors to use drop boxes to collect absentee ballots. The office’s legal counsel told auditors on Aug. 20 that 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.

The office is now saying drop boxes must be either inside the auditor’s office or outside the building on county-owned property, according to the two-page guidance auditors received on Wednesday and obtained by Des Moines Register.

Auditors must also “take all reasonable and necessary steps to ensure the accessibility and security” of the drop boxes, according to the document. The drop box should be placed within sight or be monitored with a video security system. It should be “securely fastened to a stationary surface or to an immovable object” and be locked.

The county auditor or their staff should empty the drop box at least once every 24 hours and keep a log of the date, time and name of the individual who retrieved the materials.

Appearing last week on Iowa Press to discuss absentee voting, Secretary of State Paul Pate said drop boxes placed around a community are not permitted, but admitted his office hadn’t been clear about that.

“All the auditors should be able to have a drop mechanism there on their property for returning those ballots. That’s my understanding. That’s how we’re interpreting it, and we’re advising the auditors. … The ones in question were the ones that were spread out throughout a community, in parking lots, at grocery stores, places like that. There is where the attorney general was involved in stating those do not meet the present standards of the law.

This was a good example of a terrible line of communication, and my office will take some of that on our shoulders. We’re not telling people they can’t have the drop box, again, at the auditor’s office outside. The confusion was when you start putting them outside the community.”

Pate added that Iowa Code “does not give auditors the authority to put these types of mechanisms around the county. If they want something like that, they need to go to the Legislature and have them include that in the bill.”

Linn County Auditor Joel Miller and his office placed four drop boxes in the county. One is outside the Jean Oxley Public Service Center, where Miller’s office is housed. The other three are outside of Hy-Vee locations in Cedar Rapids and Marion.

Miller told Little Village on Friday he will remove the drop boxes located at the Hy-Vee locations before Oct. 4. Miller’s office will begin mailing absentee ballots on Oct. 5.

The new guidance from the Secretary of State’s office pertains to “voted absentee ballots” not absentee ballot request forms, so voters can still use the drop boxes to submit their request forms.

“I don’t agree with the guidance, and I don’t agree that the Secretary of State has the authority to dictate how we handle drop boxes,” Miller said. “That said, I have enough legal battles going on right now that I’m not going to push this issue.”

The Trump campaign, Republican Party of Iowa and two national Republican campaign committees filed three separate lawsuits against three county auditors, including Miller, Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert and Woodbury County Auditor Pat Gill. All three county auditors are Democrats.

Last week, District Court Judge Ian Thornhill ordered Miller to nullify about 50,000 ballot request forms, siding with the Republican groups that alleged Miller overstepped his authority by sending out forms with pre-filled voter information.

A day later, a similar ruling was made in Woodbury County where 14,000 request forms are now void. The hearing against Weipert on the fate of Johnson County’s ballot request forms is scheduled for Sept. 9. A decision by Thornhill could come the same day.

“We’ve been challenging it since the decision was rendered on Aug. 27,” Miller said about the outcome in Linn County. “We started filing additional briefs, motions, etc. with the court on the following Monday.”

The Iowa Democratic Party and additional groups filed a lawsuit against Pate on Aug. 31, arguing he violated counties’ constitutional right to home rule by specifying that voter information can’t be pre-filled on a request form.

“Even if you could conclude that I did something wrong, it’s still an injustice that the judge decided to punish the voters and to invalidate 50,000 absentee ballot request forms,” Miller said. “The voter did nothing wrong except review, sign and date and return an absentee ballot request form to our office. That was an overreach by the judge. That was a disproportionate punishment by the judge when the voter didn’t do anything wrong.”

The ruling does not mean the 50,000 individuals who submitted a pre-filled request form will lose their opportunity to vote in November’s general election. These individuals — and Linn County voters who have not requested an absentee ballot yet — can fill out a blank request form or vote in-person.

Miller said his office began mailing out the blank forms and return envelopes to impacted voters on Thursday and should be done mailing them out next week on Wednesday.

Pate’s office will also be sending out request forms to registered voters. He previously said request forms will be mailed at the end of August but his office announced on Friday that the forms will be sent out this weekend.

The form is also available online. Voters have until 5 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 24 to submit their absentee ballot request forms. County auditors will begin mailing ballots on Oct. 5.

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