Four years ago, Henry County Auditor Shelly Barber said she received 1,150 votes in the 2016 primary election, around 17 percent absentee. This year, that number more than doubled, and the number of mail-in absentee ballots soared.
Henry County wasn’t the only county to see a huge jump in turnout and absentee voting, other counties also saw record-breaking turnout from mail-in ballots.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic causing some issues with getting to the polls, absentee ballots caused an increase in voter turnout in Henry, Jefferson and Washington counties. What used to make up only a small portion of total votes decided elections this year.
Secretary of State Paul Pate mailed absentee ballot request forms to every registered voter in the state before the June 2 primary to encourage safely voting during the pandemic. In resposne to Pate’s actions, Iowa Senate Republicans introduced a bill during the legislative session that would bar the secretary of state from sending absentee ballot request forms to those who didn’t ask for one. The bill was amended before it reached Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk.
Reynolds signed the bill June 28 requiring the Secretary of State to request permission from the legislature before mailing out request forms.
However, counties are not bound to the same rules. Voters can begin requesting absentee ballots July 6.
Barber and Jefferson County Elections Clerk Abbie DeKleine said they would not be mailing absentee ballot request forms to voters because it is expensive and voters already receive forms from other groups.
Henry County recorded 3,113 absentee ballots and 940 ballots cast at the polls, making absentee votes 88 percent of the total.
Jefferson County saw 999 people come to the polls and 2,800 absentee votes.
Barber said she sees around four or five different styles of forms every election, from political parties and other organizations. Voters can also obtain request forms from the secretary of state’s website or their county website.
Required information on the form includes name and date of birth, either a driver’s license ID or voter registration pin number, both the resident’s address and the county auditor office address, contact information and the date or type of election the ballot will be cast in. The form does not require notarization, and in the case of a general election, it needs to reach the county auditor’s office by 10 days before the election.
Washington County Elections Adminstrator Sue Meeks said the county has yet to decide if forms will be sent to all voters. If the county does send forms to the county’s 15,000 registered voters, it would cost around $7,000 in postage one way. Voters pay for the return postage on the request form, but the county pays for postage for the ballot itself. Eighty-two percent of the 3,226 recorded votes from Washington County in the primary this year came from absentee ballots, compared to around 17 percent of 2,834 votes four years ago.
“That would add a lot of additional postage cost that would be passed onto the taxpayer,” she said.
Each woman said elections have been trending with more and more absentee ballots for a while, and the pandemic has only helped it along.
When Barber first started at Henry County almost 37 years ago, those who wanted an absentee ballot would need a medical reason and a notarized form in order to vote, and there was no early voting.
Now, she said, it feels like everyone wants to come in early or vote absentee.
“I feel like every year it just goes up and up and up,” DeKleine said.
With more absentee voting comes less people at the polls, which Barber said should signal to leaders that they should shorten the amount of time polls are open.
Currently, polls are open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., according to the secretary of state’s website, but Barber said it should be shortened to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., as few people generally come to local polling stations after 7 p.m. and it can be difficult for poll workers, who are generally older, to work for such long shifts.
The state received $4 million in federal funds from Congress to help with elections, some of which went to recruiting younger poll workers, as poll workers are generally older and more at risk.
Another caveat in the bill Reynolds signed was that auditors would not be able to reduce polling locations by more than 35 percent.
Both Henry County, which has nine polling precincts in six locations, and Jefferson County with 12 polling places, did not reduce the number of polling places during the primary. Washington County, which usually has 10 polling precincts, consolidated them down to four.
However, no one can predict how the November general election will go. Meeks said general elections see both larger volumes of absentee ballots and voters in general, and if the COVID-19 pandemic continues to persist in the United States, those numbers may swell to match the ones seen in the primary.
“I have no idea what to expect for the general election, especially during this pandemic,” Barber said.
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