Iowa counties cut back voting sites as absentee ballot requests surge

An absentee ballot request form sent out before Iowa's June 2 primary election. (Photo by Iowa Secretary of State's Office)

As Iowa counties dramatically scale back the number of polling sites to be used in the upcoming primary election, an Iowa judge has ordered one western Iowa county to modify its plans to severely restrict in-person voting.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, counties throughout the state are scaling back the number of polling sites where voters can cast their ballot in the June 2 primary election. Scott County, for example, has reduced the number of polling sites from 63 to 23. Linn County has reduced the number of sites from 78 to 19.

While fewer voting sites would normally lead to longer lines to vote, increasing the risk of infection, prospective voters are responding to the state’s Vote Safe Iowa initiative that encourages absentee balloting. In Linn County, for example, the auditor has received 30,000 requests for absentee ballots for the upcoming primary. In a normal year, the office would have fielded 2,000 such requests, said Deputy Commissioner of Elections Rebecca Stonawski.

As of Tuesday, a total of 178,875 absentee ballots had been requested statewide for the primary.

In most instances, the increased emphasis on absentee balloting hasn’t led to controversy, but in Iowa’s sixth most populous county, the changes sparked a brief court battle.

Woodbury County Auditor Patrick Gill, a Democrat, originally planned to reduce the number of polling sites from 44 to two — a change that would have had an impact on both the June 2 primary election and a July 7 special election for a county supervisor’s seat.

Gill sent each registered voter in the county a letter urging them to take advantage of absentee voting in order to help slow the spread of COVID-19. An absentee-ballot request form was enclosed with each letter.

The auditor’s action prompted Rick Bertrand, a former Republican state lawmaker, to go to court and seek an injunction blocking the change.

Bertrand argued that historically, a large number of Republican and independent voters choose to make their electoral decisions on Election Day and they cast their ballots at a polling site rather than through mail-in absentee ballots.

He also argued that he and other voters who wait to cast their vote on Election Day would likely be forced to stand in long lines at one of the only two voting centers in Woodbury County.

“Instead of decreasing the risk of exposure, the actions of the (county auditor) will likely and irreparably harm these voters by concentrating a higher number of voters at the only two voting centers in the county, further exposing them to COVID-19,” Bertrand argued. “Either intentionally or unintentionally, defendants will suppress votes in the two elections.”

The county responded by arguing that Bertrand’s “concerns about congestion for in-person voting on Election Day appear to be predicated on the belief that voters will not change their patterns from prior elections despite the pandemic. However, the evidence will show that, in response to the pandemic, voters are utilizing absentee voting in unprecedented numbers in Woodbury County.”

For the June 2 primary, the auditor said, the number of absentee ballot requests already exceeded the total number of votes cast, at both polling sites and through mail-in ballots, for any of the last three primary elections.

The auditor also said Republicans would not be at a disadvantage, pointing to data that shows in Woodbury County, Republican absentee votes have outnumbered Democrat absentee votes in 24 of the last 29 elections.

On April 30, Bertrand and the county auditor conferred and agreed to a compromise that was approved by District Court Judge Jeffrey Poulson and made part of a consent order.

Poulson’s order stipulates that the number of county polling sites for both elections will be increased from two to five, with no fewer than five booths at each of the sites.

Should the risk of exposure to COVID-19 subside by the date of either election, the county will be able to increase the number of polling locations beyond five, Poulson ordered.

In March, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate issued a directive extending absentee voting from 29 days to 40 days prior to the upcoming primary election. His office has also sent registered voters a letter encouraging them to vote early along with a postage-paid request form for an absentee ballot.

“Absentee voting from home is safe and secure, and this is the best way to participate in the June primary election,” Pate said. “We have measures in place to ensure the integrity of the ballot while maintaining social distancing. I encourage all eligible Iowans who want to vote in the primary to use the absentee method.”

For more information about the June 2 primary, visit VoterReady.Iowa.gov.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story overstated the number of absentee ballots requested statewide. As reflected above, the correct number as of May 5 was 178,875, which was a record high for a primary election in Iowa.

Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.