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Iowa election officials pushing vote by mail for June primary

Iowa election officials pushing vote by mail for June primary

DES MOINES — There will be a June 2 primary election in Iowa, state and local elections officials pledge.

But those officials are encouraging Iowa voters to submit their ballots early through the mail in order to sidestep voting in-person on Election Day while the state may still be dealing with the novel coronavirus pandemic.

So serious is he about encouraging Iowans to vote by mail that Secretary of State Paul Pate, the state’s top elections official, plans to mail every registered Iowa voter an absentee ballot request form for the June primary.

Pate even considered going to a 100 percent vote-by-mail election. He shelved that idea for the June primary, but it remains on the table for the November general election, if the virus is still spreading in Iowa this fall.

“We’ve had to adapt,” Pate said. “It’s very fluid.”

Iowa’s June 2 primary election features multiple competitive federal races. Five Democrats seek their party’s nomination in the state’s U.S. Senate race — the winner will face Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst. In western Iowa’s 4th Congressional District, four Republicans are challenging incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Steve King. And in eastern Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District, two Republicans seek the nomination in what will be an open-seat race in the fall.

The June 2 election ballots also will include primary races for statehouse and local races.

Pate and county auditors statewide are in strong terms encouraging Iowa primary election voters to use the state’s absentee process to vote by mail. Through the absentee process, Iowans submit to their county auditor a request for a ballot, which is then mailed to their home. Voters then complete the ballot and mail it back to the auditor.

As the world continues to deal with a virus that is highly contagious, Iowa elections officials are taking steps to ensure as many people vote as possible while limiting the number of people who vote in-person on Election Day to as few as possible. While elections officials also are taking myriad steps to protect the health of voters and election workers on Election Day, the best way to avoid spreading the virus is to limit human-to-human interaction.

As of Friday, 1,388 cases of the novel coronavirus had been confirmed in Iowa, and 13 people had died as a result of the virus, according to state public health data.

Most people who are infected with the virus will experience mild, flu-like symptoms or even no symptoms at all. Some populations, including older individuals and people with previous health issues, are more susceptible to the virus, according to health care experts.

“We just don’t want people to come on voting day,” said Pat Gill, auditor for Woodbury County. “The message has been vote at home and stay at home.”

Pate said his office will mail an absentee ballot request to every registered Iowa voter in an effort to spread awareness of the vote-by-mail option.

He also extended the window in which Iowans can request a ballot and vote through the early absentee process. Voters can already request a ballot, and early voting by mail begins April 23, more than five weeks before the June 2 election.

“We’re going to be aggressively promoting and encouraging folks: ‘Please vote by mail through the absentee process,’” Pate said. “That’s the avenue we think they should consider doing … for safety reasons, if anything else.”

Local elections officials are marching with Pate in this messaging.

“We hope that as many people as possible will vote by absentee ballot so that there will be a bare minimum of people going to the polls on Election Day,” said Grant Veeder, auditor for Black Hawk County.

Roxanna Moritz, the auditor for Scott County, said she hopes to send the message to Iowa voters that auditors want them to vote but also “that we’re worried about not just the safety of yourself, but of the citizenry.”

“The public’s safety is more important to me than anything, because you are risking the community, the poll workers, everybody,” she said.

While they are encouraging Iowans to vote early by mail, local elections officials also are taking precautions to make Election Day voting as safe as possible.

Many counties are significantly reducing the number of places where Iowans can vote. The vast reductions in polling precincts means counties can employ fewer workers on Election Day.

Counties are especially keen to reduce the number of election workers since those volunteers typically trend older, and older individuals are among the most susceptible to the virus.

“You have to be worried about (older poll workers) and worried about their safety,” Moritz said.

The planned reductions include, according to county auditors:

• Cerro Gordo plans to open only 10 voting sites on June 2, instead of the usual 26.

• Scott County plans to open only 24, instead of the usual 63.

• Black Hawk County plans to open only 7, instead of the usual 62.

• And Woodbury County plans to open only 2, all the way down from its usual 44.

Auditors are taking myriad other steps, too. Some plan to place tape on the floor of voting sites to show voters exactly where to go and to help them practice safe social distancing while voting. Some plan to have barriers constructed to prevent physical contact. Auditors also said they will have plenty of hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes at voting sites.

Officials also noted Iowans can participate in curb-side voting on Election Day. In that process, workers at the voting site bring a ballot to the voter’s car, and the voter fills out his or her ballot there.

Pate said his office briefly considered moving Iowa’s June primary to a 100 percent vote-by-mail election.

But after talking to elections officials in states that currently conduct their elections entirely through the mail — including Washington and Oregon — Pate decided against it for the June primary. He said those officials described how it took them years to establish their vote-by-mail election systems.

However, Pate said if the coronavirus is still spreading through Iowa and causing infections and deaths this fall, he will consider a vote-by-mail election for the November general. In addition to those Congressional races, the general election ballots will include the race for U.S. president.

In some ways, Pate said he is having to prepare for two November elections: a best-case and worst-case scenario.

“That’s a mountain I do not think Iowa could climb (implementing 100 percent vote-by-mail for the June primary), so we weren’t able to do it that way. But clearly we’ll have to look at all options when we look at November,” Pate said. “If this thing doesn’t get better before the fall elections, we may be faced with an all-mail campaign effort instead of polling sites.”

Local officials said they, too, understood that trying to implement an all-mail election for the June primary would have been asking too much with too little time available. But some said they believe their offices could handle it if state officials decide that would be best for the November general election.

“If that’s the recommendation, I believe that we could deal with that. … I think we could handle it here,” said Gill, the auditor in Woodbury County. “My hope is that we can at least do what we’re doing for these elections now, which is we would mostly (encourage) people to vote at home through the absentee request forms and limit our polling places. If it came to that point. …

“I think we could do vote by mail. But it is scary to do it the first time.”

Auditors said such a transition would be complicated and require new equipment, more and different supplies, and extensive voter education efforts. For that reason, Veeder said state and local elections officials should already be making their contingency plans for a potential all-mail November election.

“I understand that switching to an all vote-by-mail system in time for the November election would be very difficult and would not be advisable under normal circumstances,” said Veeder, the auditor in Black Hawk County. “However, given the lack of certainty about the length and severity of the pandemic, and given the extreme importance of elections in our form of government, the state should make contingency plans for an all-mail election in November.”

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State house reporter for The Courier/Lee Enterprises.

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