Iowa election officials say they’re ready for pandemic-era voting

By: - May 26, 2020 9:00 am

A resident waits in line to vote at a polling place in Milwaukee for the April 7, 2020, primary election. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Iowa election officials say they expect no major problems in the June 2 primary, despite the issues caused by COVID-19.

The pandemic has dramatically reduced the number of in-person polling sites throughout Iowa, but it has also caused an enormous increase in the number of absentee ballots requested.

Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald says Iowans probably needn’t worry about Wisconsin-style lines at polling sites. He notes that Secretary of State Paul Pate’s mass mailing encouraging every registered voter in the state to request an absentee ballot proved to be “extremely, wildly successful.”

As of Friday, more than 471,000 absentee ballots had been sent out, and more than 252,000 had been returned, according to Pate’s office. In addition, more than 1,000 Iowans responded to Pate’s recruitment campaign for poll workers.

“So, you’re not going to turn on the TV and see the sort of lines we saw in Illinois or Wisconsin,” Fitzgerald said. “You know, the problem they had in Wisconsin was they didn’t have the number of polling sites they were supposed to have and they didn’t have the number of poll workers they needed — and some poll workers just got scared (of potential infection) and they quit.”

He said that in Polk County, polling sites have been reduced from 135 to 28, and there are plans to deploy about 350 poll workers, which should be more than enough to ensure a smooth, orderly process.

“We hope we have too many poll workers, and if we do, then we’ll send them home,” he said.

Historically, many poll workers have been retirees, placing them in an age group that’s at greater risk if they’re infected with COVID-19. To address that, Pate’s office has attempted to recruit poll workers who are less vulnerable — and, in Polk County at least, that effort appears to have paid off.

“That has been fairly successful,” Fitzgerald said. “But for us, our veteran poll workers have been with us a long time. So if they want to work, we’re going to give them all the personal protective equipment that we can. That includes gloves, masks, face shields, disposable pens for the voters, hand sanitizers and disinfectant. Now, as we get closer to the election, some people may get nervous about showing up — so we keep staffing up. And there are going to be some younger folks in the mix.”

With a potential average of more than 12 workers per site, Fitzgerald said he expects there will be no problem offering curbside voting as an option for those who don’t want to enter the building.

“That’s always been available for people with mobility issues or people who were feeling under the weather,” he said. “In the old days, we’d simply send poll workers outside to them — and so we want to make sure that for this election, we have poll workers on site who can do this, as well.”

In Adair County, where poll workers are paid $9.50 to $10.50 an hour to sign in voters, provide assistance with ballots and then count the votes once the polling sites are closed, County Auditor Mandy Berg says she already has four to five workers committed for each of the county’s five precincts.

“That means we are fully staffed and we have all the election workers we expect to need,” she said. She added that while absentee balloting is running substantially ahead of what’s normally seen in a primary election, the number of mail-in ballots isn’t likely to be much different from that seen in a general election.

The work of tallying those mailed-in ballots can begin on Monday, June 1, the day before the election, which should help ensure timely reporting of the final results on Tuesday. “We will be having our absentee-ballot team come in that Monday,” Berg said. “They’ll be coming in a day early just in case we need to spread out that work a little bit.”

In Mahaska County, where the number of in-person polling sites has been reduced from 11 to two due to the pandemic, the county has already lined up 10 poll workers. A separate team of five people will be tasked with counting absentee ballots and at this point there appears to be no need for them to begin their work before Tuesday.

The same is true in one of Iowa’s largest counties, Dallas. Although the number of absentee ballots could run as high as 12,000 — compared to 700 or 800 in a typical primary — that would still be around half the 25,000 absentee ballots typically cast in a general election.

Kim Owen, the county’s elections administrator, said the workload is such that tabulating the results of absentee ballots won’t need to begin until Tuesday.

Dallas County has reduced its number of polling sites from 34 to eight, and will have four to eight poll workers at each of those sites, Owen said. The county is already providing training to those workers, she added.

In Sioux County, the auditor’s office has about 50 poll workers lined up for five polling sites. The office intends to deal with the increased number of mail-in absentee ballots by opening the envelopes on Monday and preparing them for counting on Tuesday.

Fitzgerald, the Polk County auditor, said it will be interesting to see how the changes in voting — particularly by absentee ballot — influence voter behavior in future elections.

“We’re looking at a whole different world right now,” he said. “Our election is going to be decided by the absentee ballots — we can tell that just by looking at the numbers. Usually, it’s about 10 or 15 percent of the voters who vote absentee, with about 85 or 90 percent voting at the polls. That’s going to be flipped way around this time. This has just changed the dynamics of the election.”

He said he recently spoke to the secretary of state about what voters’ preference for absentee voting might portend for county auditors in future, post-pandemic elections.

“The thing I told Paul Pate was, ‘Once the government starts doing something, it’s hard for them to say they’re not going to do that anymore,’ ” Fitzgerald said.

He said he fears the state will not send the postage-paid absentee ballot request mailer to voters in the fall, and that it could ultimately fall to individual counties to decide whether they send out the postage-paid request mailers.

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Clark Kauffman
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.